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Neuroscience meets linguistics


Claudia Civinini looks at a review trying to connect neurolinguistics and the classroom

Knowing what a P600 is might not be at the top of a teacher’s priorities – except to make sure that it is not yet another requirement of their school’s nightmarish bureaucracy. Certainly, the fact that the P600 is a type of brain response often associated with syntax violations could make it very interesting to language teachers. It would be even more compelling if they could use this knowledge in class. But can neurolinguistics inform classroom teaching, and if so how?

An article in the journal Second Language Research tries to bridge the gap between linguists/acquisitionists and neurolinguists, who have enjoyed ‘surprisingly little dialogue’. The article reviews the neurolinguists’ take on issues in second language acquisition, processing and teaching, and offers some possible implications for language teaching. Here are some examples.

Does grammatical learning have an impact? Data obtained from a longitudinal study using electroencephalography (EEG) methodology hints at the appearance of distinct changes in brain signatures that correlate with increased grammar knowledge. Beginner classroom learners of French displayed a generic response when faced with French subject–verb agreement violations. A year of classroom instruction later, they responded with a more specific signal linked to syntactic repair operations – the already cited P600 – like native speakers do. Language-similarity effects were also observed, with native-like responses emerging earlier in the learning process for syntax constructions that are comparable between the L1 and the L2. So yes, grammatical learning has an impact, even over short periods of time.

The authors of the review also point out in the conclusion that metalinguistic awareness induces changes in the brain that sometimes reveal ‘knowledge that is otherwise obscured in real-time performance’. Remember this, teachers, next time existential doubt creeps up on you – sometimes it takes an EEG to show that students have actually learned something.

Does implicit instruction work better than explicit instruction? Another similar longitudinal study found that the extent to which L2 learners (of an artificial language) can display native-speaker-like responses to grammatical violations can depend on the type of instruction received: implicit, comparable to immersion, or explicit, comparable to classroom instruction. Learners’ performances did not vary significantly, but their neural responses did: implicit input created more native-like brain patterns, at least in high-proficiency learners. The article suggests that perhaps this is due to the fact that ‘at initial stages the input is being stored as unanalysed chunks from which generalised rules are later extracted’.

Other studies, however, show different responses, even in native speakers – which suggests that there may be more than one route to syntactic comprehension. As the authors put it, immersion seems to be optimal, but learners do benefit from explicit instruction.

Can learners truly learn from feedback? Another study analysed the brain signatures of L2 learners who were not explicitly instructed but learned through feedback to their correct and incorrect responses through the experiment. They eventually achieved the P600 signal as learning increased. Their response to feedback was also revealing: it was greater at the beginning and decreased over time, suggesting that feedback seems to have a much greater impact at the early stages of language learning. And yes, learners can learn from feedback even when they are not explicitly instructed.

Although the authors urge caution and point out that further research is needed to connect neuroscience with the classroom – and that neurolinguistic findings cannot yet ultimately arbitrate between different L2 theories – the idea of the creation of neurolinguistically informed pedagogies for second language learning seems certainly worth pursuing.

See study: Roberts, L., Gonzalez Alonso, J., Pliatsikas, C., & Rothman, J. (2016). Evidence from neurolinguistic methodologies: Can it actually inform linguistic/language acquisition theories and translate to evidence-based applications? Second Language Research

Pic courtesy: Jason Powers