Studying the Effects of When and How We Learn a Language
By BETH HARPAZ
You may not be aware of it, but when you listen to someone speak, you’re predicting what they’re likely to say next based on what they’ve already said. If your prediction is right, your comprehension is faster. But if you predict wrong, you have to re-analyze to understand, and that slows you down.
Researchers at the Second Language Acquisition Lab at The Graduate Center, CUNY, wanted to see if predictive processing differs among bilingual individuals. They compared two types of fluent Spanish-English speakers: those who learned Spanish as a first language but were immersed in English-dominant society early in life, versus “late bilinguals” who grew up in Spanish-language regions but learned English as adults. Would that difference impact their ability to predict speech in Spanish?
The study, published in The Journal of Cultural Cognitive Science, was co-authored by Michael C. Stern, a master’s degree student in linguistics; linguistics Ph.D. students LeeAnn M. Stover and Cass Lowry; recent Ph.D. graduate Christen N. Madsen II, and Professor Gita Martohardjono.
Participants listened to sentences in Spanish while looking at sets of three images. Only one of the three images correctly represented the meaning of each sentence. The participants’ eye movements were tracked to see which image they fixed their gaze on before they picked the correct image.
The study found that those who learned English later in life predicted what words would come next in a Spanish sentence just like people who only speak Spanish. But those who grew up speaking both languages while living in an English-dominant society “predicted less actively in Spanish.”
What surprised the researchers was that hesitating on those predictions sometimes provided an advantage. Instead of anticipating the wrong thing and then correcting their understanding, those who waited got the right result faster if the sentence was complex.
This “conservative processing strategy” reduced “the risk of failure” in comprehension. “The perhaps counterintuitive finding, then, is that a reduced ability to generate expectations can cause processing advantages, as well as disadvantages,” the authors wrote.
In an interview, Stern added: “While we often think of the first language as completely stable, this study shows us that first-language processing remains malleable throughout the lifetime, subject to changes in language exposure, among other factors.”