Most adult learners cannot attain native competence in a second language. Scholars have proposed various accounts for this limited attainment of older learners compared to young children, including critical periods for language acquisition, sociocultural differences, motivational effects, and restricted language input. Such accounts have profoundly different implications for second language instruction, its likely success, and the best means of attaining it. This research project considers alternative explanations in terms of cognitive principles of learning and transfer, in particular, attentional processes in the associative learning of form-meaning relations for linguistic constructions. The investigators will examine the learning phenomena of salience, cue redundancy, and the attentional blocking of later experienced cues by earlier ones, and how individual differences in working memory capacity modulates these effects.

This is an highly integrative research exercise, bridging the psychologies of learning and development, cognitive science, linguistics, language acquisition, and education. The interdisciplinary nature of the research relies on a variety of convergent methods: laboratory learning of temporal reference in a small subset of Latin under experimental conditions, eye-movement studies of attention in reading second language Spanish, analyses of development in regular university Spanish foreign language courses, training studies, and the development of classroom or lab-based foreign language instructional interventions.

Findings from this research will provide: (1) important theoretical insights into psychological processes of learned attention and transfer in second language acquisition, uniting the psychology of learning and second language acquisition in developing instruction-relevant, cognitive rather than biological, explanations of limited second language attainment; (2) detailed interdisciplinary understandings of these mechanisms as they occur both in naturalistic second language acquisition and in instructed foreign language courses; (3) forms of second language training that are based on these theoretical understandings; and (4) evaluations of the instructional efficacy of these practices.

Project Report

Learning a second language in adulthood can prove challenging. Untutored second-language acquisition tends to stop at levels short of nativelike grammatical ability. At its most extreme this can present itself as a ‘basic variety’ of language which, although sufficient for everyday communicative purposes, predominantly comprises just content words with little use of grammatical functors (articles, coordinators, prepositions, etc.) or morphology (tense markers, plural markers, etc.). Various explanations have been proposed for this limited attainment of adults compared to children, including critical periods for language acquisition, sociocultural differences, motivational differences, and restricted input. This project explores an alternative account based on cognitive factors. There are a range of effects of transfer and interference that shift learners’ attention to input as a result of prior experience. One is the phenomenon of blocking. Associating a particular stimulus A with a particular outcome X makes it more difficult to learn that cue B (subsequently paired with the same outcome) is also a good predictor. Thus, for example, if a pigeon learns that a conditioned stimulus (e.g., a light) is a reliable predictor of an unconditioned stimulus (e.g., the onset of some painful stimulus such as a shock), then it will not learn that any other conditioned stimulus predicts the unconditioned stimulus (e.g., that a bell predicts the onset of the shock in the same way the light did). Once the animal learns one reliable association with the conditioned stimulus, this essentially blocks further associations. Blocking is an effect of learned attention. It is widespread across animal and human learning. There are many situations in natural language in which cues are redundant and thus—as a consequence of blocking—might be less readily learned. If first language experience has led a learner to look elsewhere for cues to interpretation, he or she might use these cues where available in the second language (L2 and this reliance on L1 cues will be to the detriment of learning other cues that might also be relevant. For example, L1-derived knowledge that there are reliable lexical cues to temporal reference (words like yesterday, gestern, hier, ayer) might block the acquisition of verb tense morphology from analysis of utterances such as yesterday I walked or hier nous sommes allés au cinéma "yesterday we went to the movies." Given that it is not uncommon in natural language for grammatical cues to be foreshadowed by more salient lexical and discourse cues like this, SLA thus seems to be a problem space that might be particularly susceptible to learned attention effects such as blocking and overshadowing. Ellis and Sagarra (2010a) explored learned attention in two experiments. The first demonstrated short-term instructional sequence effects in adults learning temporal reference in a small set of Latin phrases. In Experiment 1, previous experience with adverbial cues blocked the acquisition of verbal tense morphology, and, in contrast, early experience with tense blocked later learning of adverbs. Experiment 2 demonstrated long-term transfer effects: Native speakers of Chinese languages, which do not exhibit verb tense morphology, failed to acquire inflectional cues when adverbial and verbal cues were equally available. These latter findings suggest a long-term attention to language, a processing bias affecting subsequent cue learning that comes from a lifetime of prior L1 usage. Ellis & Sagarra (2011) extended these investigations where the participants had to learn a more complicated morphological paradigm. In Experiment 1, salient adverbs were better learned than less salient verb inflections and early experience of adverbial cues blocked the acquisition of verbal morphology. Experiment 2 demonstrated long-term transfer: Native speakers of Chinese (no tense morphology) were less able than native speakers of Spanish or Russian (rich morphology) to acquire inflectional cues from the same language experience. Learned attention to tense morphology in Latin was continuous rather than discrete, ordered with regard first language: Chinese < English < Russian < Spanish. Ellis & Sagarra (2010b) and subsequent studies demonstrated that such effects extend to the sentence processing strategies of third- and eighth-semester English-Spanish foreign language learners reading sentences in Spanish containing lexical (adverb) and morphological (verbal inflection) cues. They also show how instructional practices that manipulate learner attention to morphological cues, either by means of pre-exposure, typographical enhancement, or grammar instruction, increase attention to inflections thus to overcome reliance upon adverbial cues. These findings thus guide second language instruction. References Ellis, N. C. & Sagarra, N. (2010a). The bounds of adult language acquisition: Blocking and learned attention. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 32 (4), 553-580. Ellis, N. C. & Sagarra, N. (2010b). Learned Attention Effects in L2 Temporal Reference: The First Hour and the Next Eight Semesters. Language Learning, 60: Supplement 2, 85-108. Ellis, N. C. & Sagarra, N. (2011). Learned attention in adult language acquisition: A replication and generalization study and meta-analysis. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 33 (4), 589-624.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Betty H. Tuller
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University of Michigan Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor
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