Neurocognitive foundations of successful foreign language learning: Researcher, student and knowledge exchange between the UK and Japan

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Culture, Communication and Media

Abstract

The difficulty of developing adequate foreign language (FL) proficiency has led education researchers to investigate how FLs can be learned in the most effective and efficient way. Drawing on perspectives from neuroscience, we propose a novel, interdisciplinary hypothesis that individual differences in brain and cognitive functions related to hearing and memory can explain why certain FL learners attain different degrees of success under different instructional programs (form- vs. meaning-oriented) in linguistically different contexts (British learners of Japanese vs. Japanese learners of English). The findings of the research will shed light on whether it is possible to identify neurocognitive profiles specific to different groups of FL learners, highlight their advantages and shortcomings, and suggest optimal, profile-matched instructional methods.

With the aid of the Connections Gant, we will initiate a novel collaboration between the UK and Japan across two somewhat independently developed fields (i.e., education, neuroscience) at both faculty and student levels. It also represents the very first partnership between world-renowned institutes in education (UCL - ranked 2nd in the UK) and neuroscience (Birkbeck and Tohoku - ranked 8th and 3rd in the UK and Japan, respectively) (Times Higher Education, 2018). The two host institutes, Birkbeck and Tohoku, have shown their willingness to support the current initiative by providing access to research facilities (office, meeting rooms). To facilitate the execution of the proposed activities, the members also plan to seek internal funding (Birkbeck Incentive Funds; Joint Research Program with Tohoku University).

The team includes both scholars at different stages in their careers who completed their formal academic training at different time points (Saito, 2011; Tierney, 2010; Révész, 2006; Jeong, 2007; Sugiura, 2000; Suzuki, 2015). Thus, the project not only promotes intercultural/interdisciplinary interaction, but also serves as an opportunity for PhD students and scholars early in their careers to increase the breadth and depth of their experience by working with senior scholars.

After the initial video-conferencing sessions to meet and exchange ideas, we will host 5-day research workshops at Birkbeck (March 2019) and Tohoku University (August 2019). In these meetings, the team will work together on an interdisciplinary overview on the following three topics: (a) auditory neural encoding and phonological learning (Saito, Tierney, Révész, Jeong); (b) declarative memory and lexical learning (Saito, Tierney, Sugiura, Suzuki); and (c) procedural memory and grammar learning (Révész, Jeong, Sugiura, Suzuki). Research findings on these topics will also be summarised according to each target language (Japanese vs. English). The members' PhD students will participate in literature search and manuscript writing as a co-author.

To disseminate the research, we will host unique symposia in London (September 2019) and Tokyo (October 2019). In each event, members and their PhD student collaborators will present their conceptual papers alongside two expert keynote speakers from education and neuroscience, who will provide valuable feedback on team's research. To invoke interests from various types of audience, local PhD students and FL teachers will be invited to present their insights on successful FL learning and engage in discussion with team members.

All presentations will be published in an open-access, edited volume produced by an international publisher. A non-technical report on the cognitive mechanisms underlying successful FL learning will be shared via the team's new website and on social media in both Japanese and English. During the final period of the collaboration (April 2020), the team will work on grant applications (e.g., JSPS, ESRC) to fund a series of empirical studies and test the hypotheses that the team will have developed.

Planned Impact

Through the research workshops and symposia, the project will provide new insights into the role of individual differences in hearing and memory in determining success in FL learning. The outcomes of the proposed research are immediately relevant not only to learners and teachers of Japanese and English as a FL, but also to other practitioners such as those in higher education and speech and language therapy.

FL Teachers and Learners: The outcomes of our collaboration will include robust descriptors of the explicit and implicit aptitude characteristics of highly successful FL learners. In line with aptitude-treatment-interaction hypotheses in FL education research, these descriptors are expected to help teachers identify students with implicit language aptitude who would likely benefit more from a meaning-oriented (rather than form-oriented) approaches to L2 speech learning; and those with explicit language learning aptitude who would likely benefit more from a form-oriented approach (e.g., explicit instruction, drill activities). Additionally, comparing the cognitive profiles of Japanese and English FL-learning will speak to the generalizability of the topic, and provide tailored recommendations for learners studying each language. It is our hope that introducing the concept of cognitively-matched treatments for FL learners will lead many practitioners (who are currently learning/teaching Japanese or English) to notice the potential enjoyment of FL learning; perceive and promote a sense of improvement in their own language proficiency; stimulate their willingness to engage in cross-cultural communication; and contribute to the development of cross-cultural and international relationships between the UK and Japan in the long run.

Practitioners in Higher Education: Another crucial objective of the study is to promote the educational value of international and interdisciplinary interactions, an understudied topic especially between social science scholars in the UK and Japan. During the proposed project, not only will early career researchers benefit from working with senior career researchers, all participating PhD students will also gain a great deal of research experience via their involvement in various phases of the project. We plan to document and share the way the team (researchers, students) will work together to expand their network across different countries (UK, Japan), interface different academic disciplines (education, neuroscience) and enhance the breadth and depth of their own research programme. Such information will greatly inform administrators, teachers, and students of the potential and key for success in future UK-Japan collaborations in social sciences under higher education settings.

Speech Therapists: In the area of pathology, a range of research-based techniques have been devised to help first language (L1) learners overcome language difficulties resulting from impairments in hearing and memory (e.g., sensory feedback, oral motor exercise). To date, speech pathology authorities (e.g., American Speech-Language Hearing Association) have pondered the potential of using these research-based techniques in FL learning. Although this has been a recurring question in the field, and many FL leaners in fact seek advice from pathologists, surprisingly little empirical research has been conducted on the similarities/differences in the cognitive underpinnings of L1 and FL learning. This has resulted in a lack of training in speech therapy programmes on how to apply pathological treatment to FL learning. Given that the proposed project aims to illustrate the extent to which the cognitive foundations of first language learning are germane to FL learning (as extensively discussed in neuroscience), it is our hope that the outcomes of the study can inform these practitioners and have a profound impact on speech and language therapy interventions for FL learners.

Publications

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Description Second language acquisition and teaching is a crucial research area in a globalised world. However, learning and mastering a second language especially after puberty is a difficult task. With an aid of the connection grant, our research team has hosted two local workshops and two international symposia in 2019, featuring scholars from education, linguistics and neuroscience. One notable discovery resulting from the events was that we found few cross-talks between these fields, resulting in little interdisciplinary work on the topic of second language acquisition and teaching. Our team has agreed that it's high time for education, linguistics, and neuroscience researchers to collaborate and produce new insights. In fact, the team already applied and obtained the Tohoku University Joint Research Grant (JPY 190000) to launch a series of pilot studies to test a set of hypotheses and research topics that we discussed throughout the workshops and symposia.
Exploitation Route All the workshops and symposis were video-recorded and shared online (https://www.facebook.com/NeuroSLA/). We are currently working on editing all the video recordings while creating our YouTube account. In the near future (June 2020), we will upload all the video recordings so that the general public can watch high-quality recordings anytime,
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy

URL https://www.facebook.com/NeuroSLA/
 
Description In reality, learning and mastering a second language has become an increasingly crucial topic among general public. We have hosted two workshops and two international symposia between 2019 and 2020. In May 2020, we plan to have our final international symposium in Tokyo, Japan. All the discussion will inform how to learn and teach a second language in the most effective and efficient way. To help general public access our discussion and discoveries, all the talks were live-streamed. Furthermore, we are currently editing the video-recordings so that we can upload to YouTube in the near future (June 2020).
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

 
Description Tohoku Joint Research Grant
Amount ¥200,000 (JPY)
Organisation Tohoku University 
Sector Academic/University
Country Japan
Start 04/2019 
End 03/2021
 
Description Tohoku-UCL Collaboration 
Organisation Tohoku University
Country Japan 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Thanks to the ESRC Connection Grant, we hosted a series of workshops among researchers at Tohoku University and University College London. As a result, we have launched a series of projects where we aim to collect data, and investigate the cognitive profiles of successful second language learners at Tohoku University.
Collaborator Contribution The department of international studies has offered JPY400,000 to support our research activities.
Impact We are currently conducting data collection. This project aims to examine the cognitive profiles of successful second language learners in classroom settings. The project is interdisciplinary, as our methodology spans in education, linguistics, cognitive psychology and neuroscience.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Interdisciplinary workshop at Tohoku University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Dr Kazuya Saito and Dr Yuichi Suzuki gave a workshop on how to interface education and neuroscience perspectives to research on second language acquisition on 8th February 2019 (Tohoku University). A total of 30 participants attended the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Neurocognitive Foundations of Successful Second Language Learning: Roles of Cognitive, Experiential and Sociopsychological Individual Differences 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Our group hosted our first research symposium at Tohoku University on 24th April 2019. The four-hour event featured a total of five talks spanning between education, linguistics and neuroscience. A total of 100 participants attended (including researchers, students and teachers). The event was also live-streamed via Facebook Live, and reached more than 3,000 people all over the world.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.facebook.com/NeuroSLA/
 
Description Neuroscience, linguistics and education approaches to successful second language acquisition 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We hosted another interdisciplinary symposium on 3rd and 4th December 2019. The two-day event included a total of 10 talks including a plenary speech by Professor Robert DeKeyser (University of Maryland). The event was live-streamed via Facebook Live, reaching out a total of 5,000 people all over the world.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.facebook.com/NeuroSLA/
 
Description New insights on second language acquisition 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Our team hosted a one-day workshop featuring four presentations on how to research second language acquisition from neuroscience, education and linguistics perspectives on 15th November 2019. Both faculty and student members participated, and engaged in discussion. The event was live-streamed via Facebook Live, attracting approximately 500 people all over the world.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.facebook.com/NeuroSLA/