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Researcher tries to answer mysteries language learning

A gray cat jumps into an open window and spots a goldfish in a glass on the counter. Dramatic music gets louder as the cat nears the fishbowl and the picture switches back and forth from the cat licking its chops to the fish. Right when the cat reaches into the glass, the fish barks and the cat scrams.

It wasn’t hard for Natasha Tokowicz to present a reason for her audience to learn second languages at the beginning of her PowerPoint presentation, but her answer to the question of why it is so hard for most adults to do so was much more involved.

Tokowicz, who earned her doctorate in psychology from Penn State in 2000, spoke Thursday afternoon to about 50 guests in the Psychology Building.

Tokowicz’s lecture, “Why is Adult Second Language Learning so Difficult?,” was a presentation of research she has done with colleagues on adults of college age and older.

According to Tokowicz, who speaks multiple languages, the main difficulties one encounters when trying to master a second language are the abundance of information, a fear of embarrassment when speaking the language and individual differences. Adult second-language learners have the disadvantage of already possessing a full set of concepts for the world surrounding them, as well as a set of labels, or names, a grammatical system and a system for contrasting sounds.

Sometimes, an appropriate transfer of similar labels between languages occurs, but usually, mismatches create problems. An example of an appropriate transfer is the word “color” between English and Spanish.

Adult learners have certain concepts connected to their first language but, eventually, the same concepts must be connected to the second language for comprehension. Problems arise when translation equivalents don’t have the same meaning.

For example, the Spanish word “iglesia” evokes a different image than its English translation “church.”

Multiple translations of terms from one language into another is another area that causes difficulties for learners. Tokowicz cited the example of the word “trunk,” which has at least four meanings in English and, consequently, at least four different translations in other languages.

Mismatches between grammatical systems, like word order, are another such area. As an example, the Spanish “Yo lo compre” translates into “I it bought,” an unacceptable English construction.

The second half of Tokowicz’s lecture consisted of a detailed description of her research. She and her team had measured electrical currents in the brains of 15 tested individuals to determine how they reacted to semantic and syntactic errors in the second language when sentences were flashed before them. She claimed that second-language learners acquire syntax sensitivity for their second language after four months of studying it.

Tokowicz pointed out that the research so far has been limited and that the results she was presenting were only preliminary.

She advised potential second-language learners to tackle the hard aspects of the new language first to give themselves more time to develop the sensitivity needed to become better speakers, but at the same time, admitted that this approach didn’t work for her when she was learning Italian.