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Individual differences in language acquisition and attainment

Individual differences in language acquisition and attainment

This is a five-year project funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation which investigates individual differences in first language (L1) and second/foreign language (L2) acquisition and attainment. In particular, we examine relationships between individual strengths and weaknesses in specific areas of linguistic and non-linguistic cognition, with a view to developing and testing hypotheses about which aspects of language depend on which aspects of cognition.

Our research includes three main strands:

A. Explicit and implicit language aptitude

This strand examines the following research questions:

  • How do we measure explicit and implicit language aptitude?
  • How does explicit and implicit language attitude influence speed and accuracy of language processing (in both L1 and L2)?
  • What is the relationship between these two types of aptitude?
  • To what extent do adult second language learners rely on the same mental mechanisms as children acquiring their first language?
B. Fluency

This strand examines fluency in the broadest sense: not just phonological fluency (the ability to produce rapid speech with relatively few pauses and self-corrections) but also cognitive fluency (the ability to retrieve and integrate linguistic units rapidly and effortlessly during online processing). These are investigated using a variety of methods, including analysis of spontaneous speech samples, behavioural experiments, and ERP recordings. While there is a considerable amount of work on fluency in the field of second language acquisition, it is almost virgin territory in work on L1 development (except among researchers dealing with language pathology). This research strand is thus be ground-breaking in many respects, and will give us a better understanding of the cognitive abilities underlying the development of fluency in typical first language acquisition as well as informing linguistic theory by exploring the similarities and differences in the development of fluency in first and second language acquisition.

C. Language and literacy

Modern linguistic theory is based largely on research on highly literate speakers of languages with a long written tradition – that is to say, hardly language in its “natural” state. This strand looks at how literacy affects language at both the developmental level (i.e., how becoming a skilled reader affects individual speakers’ mental grammars) and at the historical level (the effects that a long tradition of literacy has on language structure). This involves

  • Analyses of vocabulary richness (e.g. lexical density, lexical diversity) and grammatical complexity (e.g. use of subordination and complex noun phrases) in texts produced by highly literate and low-literate speakers;
  • Analogous analyses of historical corpora;
  • Experimental studies examining the relationship between print exposure and comprehension of complex syntax (focussing on subordination devices and discourse connectives);
  • Comprehension experiments and elicited production studies comparing the linguistic abilities of adult literates and illiterates.

Project team

Prof. Ewa Dąbrowska
Dr Laura Becker
Dr. Miguel Llompart Garcia
Ashley Blake
Magdalena Grose-Hodge