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Psychology graduate student challenges the one-size-fits-all approach to language education

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Foreign languages are taught in around 90% of high schools across America, but only 20.7% of the population can speak a second language, and even fewer can read, speak, and comprehend this language well enough to use it in their everyday lives. Psychology graduate student Margarita Zeitlin is using her American Psychological Association grant funds to research how that might be changed.  

Zeitlin asks how we can leverage individual strengths to help people learn languages. Current linguistics literature suggests that some people may pay more attention to syntax, the structure of language, while other people pay more attention to semantics, the meaning of language. 

Zeitlin’s research asks if there is bias within the individual learner towards the structure or meaning of language. She believes that if there is a bias, this could help students learn languages most effectively.  

Zeitlin recommends that teachers match students with activities that fit how their brain processes language. A structure-focused learner would benefit more from conjugation charts and grammar rules, while a meaning-focused student would learn better from conversation, and with an app like Duolingo, which implicitly teaches grammar. 

In Zeitlin’s lab in the UW Psychology Department, different language errors are shown to subjects to figure out what type of learner the student is. 

Syntactic errors, like “the crime rate was increase” include incorrect structure or grammar, while semantic errors, like “the crime rate was laughing” contain incorrect meaning. 

The electrical activity in the subjects’ brains is monitored in relation to each type of error and compared to their brain activity during structurally correct and meaningful sentences like “the crime rate was increasing.” 

Studies have shown that there is a marker for how the brain processes language meaning, called N400, and a marker for language structure processing, called P600. 

Historically these error tests were analyzed and averaged in groups of 30-40 people. But these averages failed to show the crucial differences in an individual’s language processing. 

For example, when testing the grammatical error “the crime rate was increase,” the group of subjects showed a trend towards the grammatical marker, P600. However, individual responses showed more variety, with many participants showing the meaning marker, N400. 

Zeitlin’s research observes trends in, and not across, individuals. A trend that studies have shown is that second language learners move from a meaning bias to a structural bias.

Zeitlin explains that early on, language learning is tied to words. She says that we learn packaged phrases and say them like idioms without understanding the structure of what we are saying.

By increasing their knowledge of a language, people start to extract the rules and understand the structure. Zeitlin says that “as you become more fluent and start to apply the rules more fluidly, that’s when you see the P600 appear.” This shift is seen in many languages across learners.

Zeitlin is also researching how learning one language can influence learning another. She asks “based on your first language, what second language would you be better at learning?” How easy is it to learn a feature of a language that doesn’t exist in your native tongue? 

Because grammatical gender exists in Italian, nouns are feminine or masculine. Zeitlin found that it is difficult for English first language speakers to learn this feature since it does not exist in their native tongue. Conversely, speakers of languages with grammatical gender have an easier time learning new languages that share those features.

Crucially, she found that children are better at learning these features because it is important to the learning process. However, for adults, gender is not crucial for language processing and it is much harder for them to pick up this feature, according to Zeitlin.

In 2017, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences hosted a panel to solicit advice from researchers like Zeitlin and release a report on how to improve language learning education in the US. Zeitlin discussed the value of immersion schools and recommended educating parents.

In recent years, immersion schools have been banned in the state of California, however, the laws were subsequently overturned. The misconception that immersion education is detrimental to the development of language skills exists even at the governmental level.

It was found that the third graders in these programs were underperforming in government enforced English tests compared to the overall population of third graders. Half of their vocabulary exposure was in one language and half in their second language, but for the monolingual third graders, 100% of their vocabulary was in English.

Some parents failed to understand this fact and were pulling their kids out of immersion programs upon seeing their low test scores. However, fifth graders that continued on in the immersion schools over-performed compared to their monolingual counterparts in English tests. 

Zeitlin wants to do research to help parents understand what the low immersion school test scores mean. “When you see this score it doesn't mean your kid is doing horribly and will never learn English, on the contrary, they are learning a lot about language from two different perspectives,” Zeitlin said.

Reach reporter Tiasha Datta at Twitter: @TiashaDatta2

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