Contrary to one of the most-cited studies in the field, a new research paper from University of Kansas (KU) linguists shows that even as beginners, adults can quickly begin mentally processing sentence structures in a second language like a native speaker. “We were inspired by a study that is cited in our article as Osterhout et al., 2006,” said KU linguistics professor Alison Gabriele. “They were looking to see whether novice learners could show any kind of sensitivity to grammatical rules, even after very little classroom exposure to French. In their study, they started to test these learners after just one month of university French classes, and then they tested them again at four months and seven months.
“Their findings were interesting because they show that, even for linguistic properties that are similar between English and French… the novice learners’ brain responses were different from what native speakers of French showed.
“We thought it would be interesting to try to do a similar kind of study with a larger sample size, a comprehensive statistical modeling approach, a wider range of linguistic structures, and an array of individual difference measures,” she said. They also chose to work with Spanish students.
Over a four-year period, the organizers tested two cohorts totaling nearly 50 students, mainly to compare how their brains worked when processing a linguistic structure that is the same in the two languages—requiring agreement of number between the subject and verb, such as “the boy cries (el chico llora)” vs. “the boys cry (los chicos lloran)”—and when processing something that differs between the two languages, such as number and gender agreement between a noun and an adjective.
To illustrate the difference, in English, one can say “the flower is beautiful” or “the flowers are beautiful,” and the adjective is unchanged. In Spanish, however, la flor es hermosa becomes las flores son hermosas, and the adjective has to be marked for both number and gender. For the sentences testing agreement between a noun and an adjective, the researchers were interested in comparing brain responses to number and gender because number is a feature that is similar between English and Spanish but gender is unique to Spanish.
“In our study, the second-language learners showed a native-like response for both kinds of number-agreement errors— subject-verb agreement and noun-adjective number agreement,” Gabriele explained. “This suggests a strong facilitation for features like number that are part of both the inventory of the first and second language, and we think this means that second-language learners can build on the inventory of features in the native language when learning the second.
“Probably the most exciting finding for classroom second-language acquisition is that it shows, even with very limited exposure to a second language, that learners can at least begin to show these brain responses related to grammatical processing just like native speakers—at least for properties that are similar between their first and second languages. So I think it’s cause for optimism for university foreign language instruction. It shows that, even with limited exposure in the college classroom, learning can happen quite quickly and efficiently,” concluded Gabriele.
“Examining Variability in the Processing of Agreement in Novice Learners: Evidence from Event-Related Potentials” will be published in January 2022 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.