Research into Language Acquisition in the First Stages Presented in AL/TESOL Lecture

Pictured: Professors Rebekah Rast and Zhaohong Han

Pictured: Professors Rebekah Rast and ZhaoHong Han

by Noriko Kato

Teachers College welcomed Associate Professor of English and Linguistics Rebekah Rast from The American University of Paris, France on December 16, 2015. Professor Rast arrived to a crowded reception of Applied Linguistics and TESOL students eager to hear emerging findings from one of the pioneers of language acquisition at first exposure.

ZhaoHong Han, Professor of Language and Education at Teachers College, arranged for Dr. Rast to present her findings from a research project after they recently co-published First Exposure to a Second Language: Learners’ Initial Input Processing.

The two professors found their work continued to parallel each other, although they dealt with separate stages of language acquisition.

The chapter contributed by Dr. Rast, entitled, “Initial processing and use of inflectional markers: evidence from French adult learners of Polish,” describes the development of French learners’ ability to judge the correctness of inflectional markings in Polish and how they make use of them. Researchers chose Polish because of its typological difference to French.

According to Dr. Rast, researchers were particularly focused on investigating the concept of nominal morphology. “In languages that have nominal morphology, when you say, ‘look at the table,’ the table then has a different form,” she says.

“In languages like Polish there is a morphological marker at the end of the word table, like tabelę or tabela. In Polish there are seven different possibilities for those noun endings.” For English and French speakers, the task of identifying and applying this morphology proved extremely difficult.

“What we found was that children had much more difficulty with learning this morphology,” Dr. Rast says.

Pictured: Rebekah Rast

Pictured: Rebekah Rast

“We’re assuming this is probably because the children are not paying attention to form the way the adults are. Because adults are trained to look at rules and grammar structure. We’re trained to find patterns and be able to work with those patterns.”

Children are more concerned about being communicative, and will, in turn, learn the words. “They’re quite good at the vocabulary but they’re not necessarily going to pay attention to what they think is superfluous word endings,” Dr. Rast said.

Dr. Rast is currently one of the researchers of the VILLA Project, or Varieties of Initial Learners in Language Acquisition. Although the VILLA Project involves several studies from five different countries, Dr. Rast mainly presented her work in France with university aged adults and primary school children in Germany.

To frame the study, researchers focused on two main theories, the generativist and the functionalist or emergentist approach to language acquisition. Rast’s study enters more toward the emergent usage phase. “In our project, there is a belief that there is some language mechanism. The generativist see a language mechanism, an innate mechanism that we’re all born with. It doesn’t matter what language you learn, that mechanism is what is helping you learn that language.”

“Those in the usage based emergentist framework don’t necessarily posit a mechanism like that, it’s much more rule based,” she said. “We believe in this kind of usage based [theory] but at the same time we feel that there is some sort of language faculty that is at work, we’re just trying to figure out what it is.”

Dr. Rast received her MA in TESOL and Applied Linguistics from Indiana University and later went to Paris on a Fulbright fellowship where she also received a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Paris. Her father, a world-traveling archaeologist, always had an affinity for languages, leading Dr. Rast to develop a particular interest in French. She now teaches at The American University of Paris while completing research on language acquisition.

Dr. Rast asserts that a combination of the learner’s first language as well as the language input affects acquisition. “Learners are working on the language they’re exposed to but working on the input using their language faculty,” she said.

As a teacher of English to French students, she wonders, “When I give language to my students, what is it that they pick up from what I’m saying and what is it that they’re learning on their own?” By carrying out this work, Dr. Rast aims to help teachers reflect on what is happening during the learning process.

During the lecture, Dr. Rast proposed the generativist approach to questions including, what is the L2 [second language] Initial State? and what do adult learners do when they’re first exposed to a new language?

“Little is known about the state, or very early stages,” she said. “Most of the research that has been done is research that is based on artificial languages.”

Because the concept of language learning during the early stages is in it’s infancy, researchers posited many questions. They asked, to what extent does the learner’s first language affect second language acquisition, or does it in fact play a role at all? When the first language and the target language have aspects in common, is there more transparency?

How do you figure out what’s happening cognitively if the learner cannot yet produce the language?

In general, the study noted significant improvement in performance after only a few hours of exposure. “We found that learners are very capable, and more capable than most teachers expect,” Dr. Rast said.

side2In a poignant message to students, Dr. Rast acknowledged that learning a new language takes time but language acquisition can be more effective if we use the information we have.

While the VILLA project researchers are still analyzing the data they have collected, many new questions have emerged concerning language teachers use of linguistic knowledge.

“How do you deal with twenty students in front of you when you know that each one is learning differently?” she asked.

She also questioned the use of balancing the native language and the target language in the classroom. “Do you use the native language to explain the target language, to clarify? Or do you spend more time in the target language exposing your learners to the target language?” she asked.

Teachers, linguists and researchers alike will undoubtedly have their attention focused on this research as answers to these questions emerge when Dr. Rast and her colleagues navigate the murky waters of the initial stages of language learning.

All photos by Noriko Kato




Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also an M.A. student in the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.