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Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service
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Brain imaging study examines second-language learning skills

Tue, 07/22/2014

LAWRENCE – With enough practice, some learners of a second language can process their new language as well as native speakers, research at the University of Kansas shows.

Using brain imaging, a trio of KU researchers was able to examine to the millisecond how the brain processes a second language. They then compared their findings with their previous results for native speakers and saw both followed similar patterns.

The research by Robert Fiorentino and Alison Gabriele, both associate professors in the linguistics department, and José Alemán Bañón, a former KU graduate student who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, was published this month in the journal Second Language Research.

For years, linguists have debated whether second-language learners would ever resemble native speakers in their ability to process language properties that differ between the first and second language, such as gender agreement, which is a property of Spanish but not English. In Spanish, all nouns are categorized as masculine or feminine, and various elements in the sentence, such as adjectives, need to carry the gender feature of the noun as well.

Some researchers argued that even those who spoke a second language with a high level of accuracy were using a qualitatively different mechanism than native speakers.

“We realized that these different theories proposing that either second-language learners use the same mechanism, or a different mechanism could actually be teased apart by using brain-imaging techniques,” Gabriele said.

The team studied 26 high-level Spanish speakers who hadn’t learned to speak Spanish until after age 11 and grew up with English as the majority language. The speakers used Spanish on a daily basis and had spent an average of a year and a half in a Spanish-speaking country.

They were compared with 24 native speakers, who were raised in Spanish-speaking countries and stayed in their home country until age 17.

To measure language processing as it happens, the team used a method known as electroencephalography (EEG), which uses an array of electrodes placed on the scalp to detect patterns of brain activity with high accuracy in timing.

Once hooked up to the EEG, the test subjects were asked to read sentences, some of which had grammatical errors in either number agreement or gender agreement.

The researchers then compared the results of the second-language learners to native speakers. They found that the highly proficient second-language speakers showed the same patterns of brain activity as native speakers when processing grammatical violations in sentences.

“We show that the learners’ brain activity looks qualitatively similar to that of native speakers, suggesting that they are using the same mechanisms," Fiorentino said.

The study highlights the brain’s plasticity and its ability to acquire a new complex system even in adulthood.

“A lot of researchers have argued that there is some sort of language learning mechanism that might atrophy over the life span, particularly before puberty. And, we certainly have a lot of evidence that it is difficult to process your second language at nativelike levels and you have to go through quite a bit of effort to find people who can,” Gabriele said. “But I think what this paper shows is that it is possible.”

Gabriele and Fiorentino are working on a second phase of the research, studying how the brain processes a second language at the initial stages of exposure. Their preliminary results suggest that properties that are shared between the first and second language show patterns of brain activity that are very similar in learners and native speakers. This suggests that learners build on the representation for language that is already in place when learning a second language.

The research is being funded through a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant. 



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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here: http://bit.ly/1awodaa
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Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@KU bschool 's KIP team includes @KU _SADP students in all-ages housing project. http://t.co/c6Ss0FsWLL #KUworks http://t.co/FW0eI69uRi
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: http://bit.ly/1awodaa Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.


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