How the brain learns a second language is focus of Vanderbilt study

Vanderbilt University has received a four-year, $552,273 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund an exciting new research project that will examine how the brain learns a second language.

James R. Booth (Vanderbilt University)

“Collaborative Research: NSF/SBE-BSF: The neural mechanisms of language transfer to morphological learning” is led by principal investigator James R. Booth, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Psychology and Human Development. He is a nationally recognized leader in the field of neuroimaging whose work has shed new light on how the brain functions in children and adults when developing language, reading and math skills.

The project will evaluate brain function in native English speakers and native Hebrew speakers as they learn new words in a novel language the investigators will create. The language will share features with both English and Hebrew. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the investigators will seek to understand how the shared features facilitate learning the novel language, and whether learning familiar and unfamiliar language features uses different brain systems.

“Half of the world is functionally bilingual, yet high levels of proficiency of foreign languages are lacking,” said Booth. “Currently there are no programs that tailor second-language instruction to the nature of the first language.”

Booth believes that by understanding how similarities and differences between languages affect learning, instructional practices for learning a second language can be improved.

“The study’s results also will inform methods for improving second language learning by determining the ideal amount of variability in the kinds of words presented,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to match the profile of the individual learner to the best instructional approach for that person.”

Collaborators include Tali Bitan, a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, and Northern Arizona University’s Vedran Dronjic. The project will involve a visiting scholar program between the United States and Israel as well as workshops on second language learning for local professionals. Results are expected in 2021.

NSF Award# 1753626

Learn more about James R. Booth’s research lab >>

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version of this article previously appeared on Research News @ Vanderbilt.