Colloquium: External and internal factors in adult second language acquisition

January 27, 3:30-5pm, Cobb 201
Kara Morgan-Short, University of Illinois at Chicago

Learning a second language as an adult is arguably one of the most difficult learning tasks that one can undertake. Yet, it is of great importance in our increasingly global society. In order to fully understand second language development in adults, we must understand not only the processes involved in acquisition but also how these processes are affected by external and internal factors. In this colloquium, I report the results from a series of three studies aimed at elucidating the role of both external and internal factors in the developing neurocognitive underpinnings of adult second language acquisition of syntactic and morphosyntactic structures.

In all three studies, adults learn an artificial language, which is consistent with universal requirements of natural language and refers to the pieces and moves of a made-up chess-like computer game. In the first and second experiment, the effect of an external factor—the condition under which the artificial language is learned—is examined in light of learners' performance as well as their neurocognitive processes (as revealed by event-related potentials). In the third experiment, the role of internal factors is addressed. Specifically, this experiment explores whether individual differences in cognition can predict performance measures and measures of the neural representation of the acquired artificial language (as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging).

The results from these studies suggest that adult second language learners can achieve processes similar to that of native speakers, though only when they attain high proficiency. Attainment of native-like processing may also depend on certain factors, including both linguistic structure and training condition. The results also show that native-like neurocognitive processing is well-retained even over the course of several months. Finally, preliminary analyses of imaging data suggest that the extent to which a learner relies on particular neural substrates depends on individual cognitive abilities. The implications of these results will be discussed in the context of both theoretical and applied questions related to successful second language acquisition.