International team of students explores how working memory may help us learn second languages

Apr 15, 2013 by Taylor Evans

Learning a new language can be a challenge, as new vocabulary and grammatical rules can be hard for some people to grasp. To address this issue, a group of linguistics graduate students are examining how a person's working memory capacity, which is how well a person can process and retain knowledge, is connected to learning a second language. Do people with larger memory capacities have an advantage over their peers?

The diverse group of researchers, which includes graduate students from across the globe, came together almost two years ago under the guidance of Department of Linguistics faculty members Scott Jarvis and Michelle O'Malley.

Although the research is ongoing, student Ramyadarshanie Vithanage already is considering how it can be applied in the classroom when she returns to her home country of Sri Lanka.

"My duty here is to get as many ways as possible to give my students opportunities to learn English better," Vithanage says. "This project helps me get more ideas."

The group started their research with who were intermediate-level . The students were required to participate in a series of experiments to test their memory. The first two tests, called digit span experiments, asked the students to listen to and English digits and then determined how long of a sequence they could remember.

The subjects also participated in an experiment called an operation span task. The students were presented with a math problem and had to determine whether the problem was solved correctly. The students then read a letter that appeared on the next screen. They were asked to remember the letters as the experiment continued. This tested working memory because the served as a distraction during their of the letters.
The last experiments tested the effects of similarities between languages, specifically examining the participants' performance with sentences that share the same between Chinese and English, versus sentences with different word orders.

For the task called self-paced timed reading, students would read 40 sentences at their own pace. The research group found that students slowed down on parts of the reading in which there was no syntactical correlation between Chinese and English. Finally, for the task called elicited imitation, students would hear 36 sentences and immediately repeat them aloud.

"We found a significant correlation between the elicited imitation task and operation span task, which suggests that their working has some influence," says Lu Cao, who has since graduated and is now teaching at the university. "It is still not that clear yet. We still want to see more."

The group presented their research findings, which indicate that students with higher capacity may perform better in language processing tasks, at the prestigious annual Second Language Research Forum, held in October at Carnegie Mellon University. Tanya Dovbnya, a student involved in the project, notes that the conference was useful for immediately learning about research outcomes, which often take time to appear in academic journals.

"There are a lot of other people doing similar research," she says. "I think it is very good to hear the most recent status."

The group is currently conducting a new round of studies with Arabic students learning English. In the future they would like to recruit more from different proficiency levels and collect their TOEFL scores, which measure English comprehension.

Explore further: Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Fluent English speakers translate into Chinese automatically

Jun 14, 2011

Over half the world's population speaks more than one language. But it's not clear how these languages interact in the brain. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the ...

Reducing academic pressure may help children succeed

Mar 12, 2012

Children may perform better in school and feel more confident about themselves if they are told that failure is a normal part of learning, rather than being pressured to succeed at all costs, according to new research published ...

Bilinguals find it easier to learn a third language

Feb 01, 2011

The study also found that Russian speakers had a better grasp of Hebrew than Hebrew speakers themselves. "Learning a mother tongue and preserving it does not compromise the ability to learn an additional language. The opposite ...

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.