When people communicate with one another in their native language, they do so under quite strict time constraints. People speak at a rate of about two or three words per second. Literate adults read at a rate of about four words per second. My research is about how people learn new languages and how they come to be able to understand and produce language within these time constraints. In investigating these issues, it has been useful to distinguish between language-learning on one hand, and language-using on the other. The idea behind this is simple: people cannot begin to use a language efficiently unless that have learned (committed to memory) a core set of words. Below, I describe first some of my research on word learning, then turn to my research on language use.
Research Project (1): Learning Words in a New Language
There are two main strands of research. One explores the conditions under which word learning is optimized (or hindered). The other explores learner skills that may affect word learning. Here are some representative experiments:
Learning Conditions: Language textbooks are typically organized such that words that are similar in meaning are taught at the same time: colors, numbers, fruit, parts of the body and so forth. In one study, one of my students and I looked at whether this clustering made words easier to learn, or harder. We taught two groups of participants exactly the same set of second-language words, but one group was presented with the words clustered into categories and the other was presented with the words in random order. At test, the random-order group actually did better than the category group. The implications for second-language teaching are clear.
Learner Skills: What makes some people good at learning new languages? In a new research project, my students and I are examining whether certain cognitive skills and abilities correlate with better language learning. By “cognitive skills”, we mean things like good working memory (the ability to hold information in memory and manipulate it) and ability to allocate attention. The language learning task involves learning a small set of foreign language words and inferring the rule for making these words plural. Our primary interest here is to shed light on the nature of second language learning, but the results of such research could also bear directly on recruitment of individuals for overseas assignments.
Research Project (2): Understanding and Producing a Second Language
In this research, we test relatively advanced second-language learners and native speakers and compare their performance on a variety of tasks. Here I describe a representative example.
In a recent study, my students and I asked participants to read a series of English sentences and answer an occasional “comprehension question” about a just-read sentence. As they were reading, we recorded their eye movements. The experience that adult readers have when they are reading is that their eyes move from one word to the next in a rather fluid motion. In fact, this isn’t at all what they do: their eyes leap from one “large” word to the next “large” word, entirely skipping over the “little” words like “the”, “of”, “to” and so forth. Readers do not just skip short words, they also jump right over words that are predictable from context. Do second language learners also do this? Yes, they do, if they are moderately proficient. But there is an important way in which second language learners differ from native speakers: they re-read and re-read. If it takes a native-speaking reader four seconds to read a sentence, it will take a proficient second-language learner about six seconds. That may not seem like much, but over the course of a 200-page book, that is quite a bit of additional time. In projected experiments, we will test various approaches to speeding up reading in second language learners.