Lexical and sentence processing in novice L2 learners: Psycholinguistic and neurocognitive investigations

Project: Research project

Project Details


Being able to speak more than one language is key to success in a wide range of professional and academic fields. As conventional wisdom has assumed that 'younger is better' for second language learning, an increasing number of children learn a second language (L2) at school, sometimes as early as Kindergarten. However, we know remarkably little about the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying the initial stages of lexical and syntactic learning in a second language classroom setting at school, or how the processes subserving the acquisition and use of L2 knowledge change with increasing age. The currently available neurocognitive evidence is mostly based on adult second language learners, but because children are still developing their language and literacy skills in their first language, children may differ in principled ways from adults in how they integrate novel second language lexical and syntactic knowledge into their first language system. With support from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Janet van Hell and colleagues Dr. Ping Li and Dr. Darren Tanner, will use behavioral and electrophysiological measures to longitudinally study cognitive and neural mechanisms associated with the initial stages of lexical and syntactic processing in novice classroom second language learners at three ages: 5-6 years (Kindergarten), 11-12 years (6th grade), and young adulthood. The research project will also lead to an understanding of how individual differences among learners (i.e., variations in first and second language proficiency, working memory, executive control functions, and attitude/motivation) impact the rate and nature of early-stage second language learning and lexical and syntactic processing. More generally, by studying novice second language learners at three different ages the research will provide insights into the neural plasticity of language learning.

Educators, parents, business professionals, and policymakers increasingly acknowledge the importance of teaching foreign languages in US elementary, middle, and high schools. This project will contribute to much needed knowledge of how second language lexical and syntactic learning occurs at different ages, and will provide further input for more effective classroom instruction and instructional methods. Because the research team trains many female students, often from an ethnically diverse student population, the project contributes to enhancing diversity in the field of neuroscience and the planned outreach activities in the school will promote involvement by underrepresented populations in scientific inquiry.

Effective start/end date6/1/149/30/21


  • National Science Foundation: $523,509.00


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