The Fate of the Native Language in Second Language Learning

Project: Research project

Project Details


Adults often find it difficult to learn a second language. Some adult learners do manage to successfully achieve native-like performance in a second language, but how that occurs or what helps the learner is still unknown. The planned studies will investigate a new hypothesis that proposes that successful adult learners are individuals who are able to tolerate change in their native language. The changes that may be required to enable successful adult language learning may involve processing costs that initially slow the native language and make native language performance more error prone, make learners less sensitive to some features of the native language, and that open the native language to the influences of the language being learned. The project asks whether some adults are better able to accommodate the changes to the native language and, as a result, are more likely to succeed in mastering a second language.

Using both cross-sectional and longitudinal designs, the investigators will examine learners at different levels of proficiency in typical classroom learning contexts, immersed in English in the US or in Spanish in Spain. Changes to the native language will be examined at the level of the lexicon and the grammar, comparing comprehension and production, using behavioral measures of speed and accuracy, eye tracking measures during reading, and electrophysiological measures that examine the earliest time course of language processing.

The research has a number of broader implications for improving adult second language learning. It can also inform educational issues in a society in which many learners, e.g., immigrant adolescents, are faced with the task of acquiring a second language past the earliest stages of childhood and for whom failure in this task is associated with poor academic, social, and economic outcomes. The research will contribute to the training of a diverse group of cognitive scientists by involving both undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom are bilinguals or second language learners themselves, and will foster an international scientific collaboration.

Effective start/end date8/1/157/31/19


  • National Science Foundation: $146,884.00


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