Understanding cognitive individual differences to enhance second language learning in schools, universities, and corporate environments.

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Linguistics and English Language


In an increasingly global and mobile society learning a second language represents an important skill that learners may desire or need to acquire across the lifespan at different stages of their education trajectory in schools, at university, in further education and in the workplace. A crucial aspect of the success of foreign language learning lays in the acknowledgement that learners differ with respect to their aptitude for the acquisition of these skills, and that their success can be enhanced by tailoring training plans and strategies to their individual cognitive profiles. This is an important aspect for learners in general and in particular for neurodiverse learners, for example learners with specific learning differences such as dyslexia.
One of the main aims of this fellowship will be to raise awareness about the importance to consider learners' cognitive characteristics in language training at all stages of the training cycle (needs analysis, instruction design, delivery and assessment). Specifically, the present fellowship provides the resources to address three main areas: (a) raising awareness of the role of cognitive individual differences in language learning in school and universities and informing about the tools that are already available for use, (b) raising awareness of the importance of cognitive assessment in language training in corporate environments and of the tools that are already available for use, and (c) the development of an assessment tool for procedural learning ability, a cognitive ability that plays an important role specifically in child language learning, as research by myself and other scholars has recently evidenced.
The activities aimed at schools and universities will primarily include networking at the events of two main language teaching associations and the provision of CPD (continuous professional development) events aimed at primary and secondary school teachers and university language tutors.
The activities aimed at corporate environments include close collaboration with two UK businesses that provide business-to-business foreign language training and consultancy with clients ranging from small- medium sized companies to multinational corporations. Beside being beneficial to the two businesses involved, this initial collaboration will identify a pattern of collaboration that could be replicated and extended to other businesses maximising the dissemination of innovative practices in the corporate language training sector. Ultimately, these actions aim at generating competitive advantages for these companies in the national and international markets in which they operate.
As a part of my collaboration with business stakeholders, I will also work at the design of an assessment instrument for procedural learning ability availing myself of the expertise of ELTWell, a UK business specialising in linguistic consultancy and in the development of assessing and teaching materials for specific learning differences.
A further aim of the present fellowship will be to consolidate on-going academic collaboration with national and international researchers and institutions in the area of second language learning and cognitive individual differences. This will include deploying original methodology developed in my PhD dissertation in a new experimental pilot developed in collaboration with researchers at the University of Barcelona. The results of my PhD will be further disseminated at three international conferences and at two conferences organised by two main language learning associations in the UK (Association for Language Learning and Association of the University Language Centres).
The consolidation of my publication record in high-impact journals will also be a central aim of the fellowship and will contribute to the enhancement of my research profile and to the consolidation of my reputation as an expert in the area of second language learning.
Description 1. What are the most significant achievements from the award?

- Research dissemination

In the grant period I worked on a total of 6 academic publications focusing on the role of cognitive individual differences in second language acquisition for leading academic journals (all of which first-authored). One publication has been published (Bilingualism Language and Cognition; impact factor > 2), one is in the last stages of peer review (Language Learning; impact factor > 3),two others have been submitted for publication and one, currently in preparation, has been accepted for a thematic issue in Frontiers in Psychology (The role of declarative and procedural memory in language, edited by Stefaniak, Caillies and Kemény) and is due to be published online in the first half of 2021.

An additional first-authored contribution appeared in Babel, an internationally distributed magazine published in the UK, aimed at a general public readership interested in different aspects of linguistic research.

In addition to this, during the year at Lancaster I had the opportunity to supervise an MA dissertation by Iro Vasileiou on the role of memory-related cognitive abilities in computer-assisted language learning using the Duolingo app. This has led to joint work on a co-authored paper that is also in preparation .

During the grant year my work has also been accepted for talk presentations at three international conferences (American Association for Applied Linguistics - AAAL 2020, Denver, US, March 2020; 12th Nordic Conference on Bilingualism - NCB12, Stockholm, Sweden, June 2020; Association of University Language Centers - AULC 2020, Maynooth, Ireland, January 2020). Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, AAAL 2020 has been cancelled but the paper was resubmitted for AAAL 2021 (online) and accepted again. NCB12 was rescheduled due to the pandemic and is due to take place in June 2021.

In addition I gave an invited presentation on the interaction of age and cognitive individual differences in L2 learning at the Institute of Education (UCL - London, Februry 2020).


In the grant period previous to the start of the pandemic I had meetings with Anne Margart Smith ELTWell (CPD and specialist support for neurodivergent learners; Morecambe) discussing the potential future development of tasks to assess long-term memory (specifically declarative memory). These tasks could potentially be integrated in the assessment batteries this business working in the education sector has already developed for use by teachers (for example practitioners teaching neurodivergent learners).

In the 2019/2020 round I submitted an application for a British Academy Postdoctoral Award under the mentorship of Prof Elizabeth Wonnacott (University of Oxford), who is an expert in the cognition of second language learning with specific interests in the role of language input. Building on the results of my dissertation, the main aim of the project is to investigate how second language learning (in particular language input) could be optimized by tailoring it according to the learners' cognitive profile (long-term memory ability and executive function). Eventually the project was not funded by the British Academy in the 2019/2020 round and alternative sources of funding are currently being considered.

Reported in bullet-point form with more detail provided in the narrative impact section.

- Interaction, exchange and dissemination of previous research to L2 teachers/practitioners in conferences and online small-group interaction.
-Work with private sectors consultants/specialist to discuss the development of new assessment tools based on previous L2 research by myself and others.
-Dissemination of research results and current perspective on L2 language learning in instructed contexts to the wider public (online magazine publication).

Further training:
In March 2020 I attended a one-week advanced statistics course on Bayesian linear modelling taught by Prof Shravan Vasishth (University of Potsdam) and Prof Bruno Niceboim (University of Tilburg). The grant gave me the opportunity to extend my knowledge and skills in quantitative statistical analysis to Bayesian statistics, a methodology I have started to employ in my research.

Overall the work on academic publications in the area of cognitive individual differences, the further dissemination of results and an improvement of my research-related methodological skills supported a successful application as a postdoctoral research associate at Leuphana University (Lueneburg, Germany) in the Interact4Schools project (Leuphana University and University of Tuebingen),a three-year research project funded by the German Ministry of Education focusing on the tailoring/individualisation of L2 English learning in computer-assisted environments.

2. To what extent were the award objectives met? Briefly explain why any key objectives were not met.

Overall the key objectives relative to the consolidation of my publication record were met, although a number of publications still have to complete their review cycle. In terms of collaboration, it was not possible to proceed with the expected joint work with a researcher at the University of Barcelona this year, mainly due to his unavailability due to personal circumstances, later compounded by the restrictions related to the Covid pandemic. It is my intention to resume contacts and joint activity as soon as I relocate to Germany.
However, I engaged in a new and productive collaboration with a researcher currently working at Oxford University, that gave rise to the development of a complete project proposal for which external funding is being sought. Later in 2020 I also started a collaboration with Prof Ewa Dabrowska (FAU, Nürnberg-Erlangen) on a new research project with strong links to my previous research outputs.
In terms of impact, there was a possibility of exchange with the tertiary teaching sector, the private language education sector and the general public, as well as a collaboration with the private sector aimed at the future development of assessment tools. However, further exchanges and collaborations with teachers/entrepreneurs in the private foreign language teaching sector (particularly in the UK) were more limited than initially envisaged. This was mainly due to a stronger focus of the private sector on the unexpected challenges the pandemic has posed and, at least in this case, to the temporary sidelining of other activity.
Exploitation Route How may the findings be taken forward and by whom?

At this stage the findings of my research are have been mainly taken forward by myself and in association with other researchers working in projects I have been involved in. Specifically in:

- A review paper on the role of cognitive IDs in L2 learning based on my presentations and aimed at teacher and practitioners
- Further work on the development of assessment tools for declarative long-term memory that can be employed by teachers/practitioners
- Work with a German research group at Leuphana University/University of Tuebingen I will be joining at the end of the year
- Work by MA students that have extended the investigation of the role of long-term memory IDs to computer-assisted learning environments
- Work in collaboration with Prof Ewa Dabrowska and her research team (University of Nürnberg-Erlangen). This projects further develops methods introduced in my dissertation and investigates L2 learning of thematic linking in children and adults trained in a novel miniature language in a computer-assisted learning environment.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education

Description The year-long project focusing on raising awareness of the role of cognitive abilities in L2 learning had the aim to create impact immediately but also, importantly, to create the contacts and devise the practices that could be further implemented in years to come as a continuous source of impact in my area of research. Impact on practitioners operating in different educational contexts: By participating in networking events, taking part in online small-group discussion series and presenting the results of my research at teachers' conferences, I have initiated a discussion on the role of cognitive ability in second language learning and on how teachers' understanding of it can improve language practice and learners' attainment. One of the main foci was underscoring the accessibility and use of measures of cognitive ability that are available but still not well-known by practitioners. In the light of these discussions, a review on the role of cognitive ability and how to assess it is now in preparation with the intention to publish it in article form in a format and venue accessible to teachers and language tutors. Impact on the general public: In an article appeared in a non-academic magazine with a general audience interested in language and linguistics I discussed the issue of early language learning in pre- and primary school. Based on results from my dissertation and related work, I argued for the need to recognise the specificity of child cognitive ability in second/additional language learning in order to improve learning inside and outside the classroom. In order to generate a more widespread discussion on this specific point similar articles will be written for magazines and online venues in the future. Impact on small businesses operating in the area of language education: Overall my project has had a positive impact on three small business in the funding year (one based in Italy and two others based in the UK). In the Italian case the expertise I offered via the online workshop series they organised contributed to the professional training of staff as well as to the school profile as a provider of quality further professional training for external practitioners (international audience). In another case I provided consulting services to a UK-based language school that is considering offering cognitive assessment to adult foreign language students. Finally, I started a collaboration with a consulting and CPD small business (UK) with experience in the creation of assessment tools for working memory to be used with neurodiverse L2 learners. Discussions led to a plan to develop a set of assessment tools for long-term memory that are currently not available for use by teachers and practitioners.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

Description Development of further postgraduate research
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact A postgraduate student developed methodologies introduced in my recent research for their MA thesis and extended them to computer-based environments (online cognitive measures). Collaboration with the student is further ongoing and a joined presentation in an academic talk series (UK) is scheduled for May 2021.
Description Leuphana Universität Lüneburg 
Organisation Leuphana University
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Expertise in research design in the area of second language acquisition, specifically in the investigation of language production and the role of cognitive abilities.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in the area of English didactics and the role of computer-assisted tools in second language instruction
Impact Design for two studies investigating L2 learners' spoken and written production in relation to the use of digital L2 instruction in instructed learning.
Start Year 2020
Description Prof Ewa Dabrowska's lab - Friederich-Alexander Universität Nürnberg-Erlangen (Germany) 
Organisation Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Expertise in the development of a computer-assisted experimental paradigm to investigate acquisition of thematic linking following aural exposure to a novel miniature language
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in the development of measures of cognitive ability that complement the ones I developed for my dissertation
Impact - Development of experimental materials to be used in an initial pilot including: newly devised artificial language, computer-based language learning environment, computer-based measures of cognitive ability, study design, stimuli sets.
Start Year 2020
Description UCL - Development of research proposal for funding 
Organisation University College London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I have drafted a project for funding by the British Academy focusing on the interplay of language input structure and cognitive ability in the early stages of the exposure to a novel artificial language.
Collaborator Contribution Prof Elizabeth Wonnacott (now active at Oxford University) offered to mentor the project and supported the writing of the proposal. Other senior colleagues in the Language and Cognition department provided feedback on the application as well as administrative support.
Impact The proposal for a Postdoctoral Research Grant was submitted to the British Academy but was not funded in 2020.
Start Year 2019
Description Universität Tübingen 
Organisation Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Expertise in the design of second language acquisition studies that aim at investigating L2 learners' spoken and written production.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in the design and programming of e-learning platforms that complement classroom instruction in second language learning.
Impact Designs for two studies investigating the role of computer-assisted instruction in the development of spoken and written L2 language skills. Creation of learning resources to be implemented on the digital platform.
Start Year 2020
Description Early second language learning. Yes, but we can do better 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a magazine article in the magazine
Babel. The language magazine, Vol. 30, 21-23

The magazine is published in print and online by the University of Huddersfield and aims at internationally disseminating research in various areas of linguistics to the general public. In this article I specifically discussed the suitability of introducing second language learning in the primary school curriculum and, in general, to teach second languages to primary school children (or younger children) in an instructed setting. Based on my latest research findings that have shown that primary school children specifically rely on procedural learning ability (implicit learning ability) to acquire the syntax of a second language, I suggested that teachers/schools rely on teaching methodologies that more strongly support the employment of this cognitive ability and seek to maximise the amount of L2 input the children are exposed to.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://babelzine.co.uk/
Description Partecipation as expert in a series of 6 online workshops hosted by a private stakeholder (language school) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In the capacity of L2 learning expert and expert in the role of cognitive ability in L2 learning I participated in a series of 6 online workshops hosted by l'Accademia (based in Cagliari, Italy), a private foreign language school holding regular CPD online activities for foreign language teachers based in Europe, South America and Africa.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Participation in the workshop and networking event 'Our Languages' - Lancaster University 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I engaged in networking activities and discussion that led to further contacts and exchange of information relative to the role of cognitive abilities in language learning with both school practitioners and one small business owner in the Manchester area.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation at Maynooth University (Ireland) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact The AULC conference is an annual conference aimed mainly at language tutors working in tertiary institutions. At the conference I presented the paper 'Assessing Cognitive Abilities for L2 Learning: A Review of Accessible Tools'. The aim of the presentation was to raise awareness of the importance of different types of cognitive ability (working memory, phonological short-term memory, long-term memory) for the acquisition of a second language. Particularly I discussed (a) how these abilities are specifically engaged in learning of linguistic skills and (b) how practitioners can employ accessible methods to initially gauge them (c) tools that are currently available for these preliminary assessments.The talk sparked a lively discussion during the presentation, which was followed up by further exchanges with practitioners throughout the conference and requests for further similar presentations at one university in the UK.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://osf.io/jyef3/