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Older Learners in SLA Research: A First Look at Working Memory, Feedback, and L2 Development

A great deal of research into second-language (L2) development focuses on the role of cognitive factors and other individual differences. Studies of children and prime-of-life adult L2 learners suggest that differences exist in the learning processes of these groups. However, to date, little empirical work has been conducted with older adult learners. In this article we argue that older adults’ L2 learning aptitudes, processes, and outcomes merit investigation. We present interaction and working memory (WM) research as a case in point and then, as a preliminary illustration, report on a small-scale study of nine older adults, age 65–89, who were native speakers of Spanish learning English as a second language. These learners carried out communicative tasks with native speakers of English, who provided interactional feedback in response to nontargetlike question forms. Interestingly, the only older learners who showed L2 development were those with the highest scores on a first-language listening-span test of WM. We conclude by proposing that larger scale longitudinal research into the often overlooked population of older L2 learners is likely to shed interesting light on important questions concerning WM and learning processes in the field of second language acquisition.

from Language Learning

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What is the scanpath signature of syntactic reanalysis?

Which repair strategy does the language system deploy when it gets garden-pathed, and what can regressive eye movements in reading tell us about reanalysis strategies? Several influential eye-tracking studies on syntactic reanalysis ([Frazier and Rayner, 1982], [Meseguer et al., 2002] and [Mitchell et al., 2008]) have addressed this question by examining scanpaths, i.e., sequential patterns of eye fixations. However, in the absence of a suitable method for analyzing scanpaths, these studies relied on simplified dependent measures that are arguably ambiguous and hard to interpret. We address the theoretical question of repair strategy by developing a new method that quantifies scanpath similarity. Our method reveals several distinct fixation strategies associated with reanalysis that went undetected in a previously published data set (Meseguer et al., 2002). One prevalent pattern suggests re-parsing of the sentence, a strategy that has been discussed in the literature (Frazier & Rayner, 1982); however, readers differed tremendously in how they orchestrated the various fixation strategies. Our results suggest that the human parsing system non-deterministically adopts different strategies when confronted with the disambiguating material in garden-path sentences.

from the Journal of Memory and Language

Effects of individual differences in verbal skills on eye-movement patterns during sentence reading

This study is a large-scale exploration of the influence that individual reading skills exert on eye-movement behavior in sentence reading. Seventy-one non-college-bound 16–24 year-old speakers of English completed a battery of 18 verbal and cognitive skill assessments, and read a series of sentences as their eye-movements were monitored. Statistical analyses were performed to establish what tests of reading abilities were predictive of eye-movement patterns across this population and how strong the effects were. We found that individual scores in rapid automatized naming and word identification tests (i) were the only participant variables with reliable predictivity throughout the time-course of reading; (ii) elicited effects that superceded in magnitude the effects of established predictors like word length or frequency; and (iii) strongly modulated the influence of word length and frequency on fixation times. We discuss implications of our findings for testing reading ability, as well as for research of eye-movements in reading.

from the Journal of Memory and Language

The Structure of Working Memory Abilities Across the Adult Life Span

The present study addresses three questions regarding age differences in working memory: (1) whether performance on complex span tasks decreases as a function of age at a faster rate than performance on simple span tasks; (2) whether spatial working memory decreases at a faster rate than verbal working memory; and (3) whether the structure of working memory abilities is different for different age groups. Adults, ages 20–89 (n = 388), performed three simple and three complex verbal span tasks and three simple and three complex spatial memory tasks. Performance on the spatial tasks decreased at faster rates as a function of age than performance on the verbal tasks, but within each domain, performance on complex and simple span tasks decreased at the same rates. Confirmatory factor analyses revealed that domain-differentiated models yielded better fits than models involving domain-general constructs, providing further evidence of the need to distinguish verbal and spatial working memory abilities. Regardless of which domain-differentiated model was examined, and despite the faster rates of decrease in the spatial domain, age group comparisons revealed that the factor structure of working memory abilities was highly similar in younger and older adults and showed no evidence of age-related dedifferentiation.

from Psychology and Aging

Aging and the Vulnerability of Speech to Dual Task Demands

Tracking a digital pursuit rotor task was used to measure dual task costs of language production by young and older adults. Tracking performance by both groups was affected by dual task demands: time on target declined and tracking error increased as dual task demands increased from the baseline condition to a moderately demanding dual task condition to a more demanding dual task condition. When dual task demands were moderate, older adults’ speech rate declined but their fluency, grammatical complexity, and content were unaffected. When the dual task was more demanding, older adults’ speech, like young adults’ speech, became highly fragmented, ungrammatical, and incoherent. Vocabulary, working memory, processing speed, and inhibition affected vulnerability to dual task costs: vocabulary provided some protection for sentence length and grammaticality, working memory conferred some protection for grammatical complexity, and processing speed provided some protection for speech rate, propositional density, coherence, and lexical diversity. Further, vocabulary and working memory capacity provided more protection for older adults than for young adults although the protective effect of processing speed was somewhat reduced for older adults as compared to the young adults.

from Psychology and Aging

On the incrementality of pragmatic processing: An ERP investigation of informativeness and pragmatic abilities

In two event-related potential (ERP) experiments, we determined to what extent Grice’s maxim of informativeness as well as pragmatic ability contributes to the incremental build-up of sentence meaning, by examining the impact of underinformative versus informative scalar statements (e.g. “Some people have lungs/pets, and…”) on the N400 event-related potential (ERP), an electrophysiological index of semantic processing. In Experiment 1, only pragmatically skilled participants (as indexed by the Autism Quotient Communication subscale) showed a larger N400 to underinformative statements. In Experiment 2, this effect disappeared when the critical words were unfocused so that the local underinformativeness went unnoticed (e.g., “Some people have lungs that…”). Our results suggest that, while pragmatic scalar meaning can incrementally contribute to sentence comprehension, this contribution is dependent on contextual factors, whether these are derived from individual pragmatic abilities or the overall experimental context.

from the Journal of Memory and Language

Individual differences in executive function and central coherence predict developmental changes in theory of mind in autism.

There is strong evidence to suggest that individuals with autism show atypicalities in multiple cognitive domains, including theory of mind (ToM), executive function (EF), and central coherence (CC). In this study, the longitudinal relationships among these 3 aspects of cognition in autism were investigated. Thirty-seven cognitively able children with an autism spectrum condition were assessed on tests targeting ToM (false-belief prediction), EF (planning ability, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control), and CC (local processing) at intake and again 3 years later. Time 1 EF and CC skills were longitudinally predictive of change in children’s ToM test performance, independent of age, language, nonverbal intelligence, and early ToM skills. Predictive relations in the opposite direction were not significant, and there were no developmental links between EF and CC. Rather than showing problems in ToM, EF and CC as co-occurring and independent atypicalities in autism, these findings suggest that early domain-general skills play a critical role in shaping the developmental trajectory of children’s ToM. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2010 APA, all rights reserved)

from the American Psychological Association

Individual differences in auditory sentence comprehension in children: An exploratory event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation

The purpose of this study was to explore changes in activation of the cortical network that serves auditory sentence comprehension in children in response to increasing demands of complex sentences. A further goal is to study how individual differences in children’s receptive language abilities are associated with such changes in cortical responses. Fourteen children, 10–16 years old, participated in an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment using a cross modal sentence-picture verification paradigm. We manipulated sentence difficulty and length in a 2 × 2 factorial design. Task-related activation covered large regions of the left and right superior temporal cortex, inferior parietal lobe, precuneous, cingulate, middle frontal gyrus and precentral gyrus. Sentence difficulty, independent of length, led to increased activation in the left temporal-parietal junction and right superior temporal gyrus. Changes in activation in frontal regions positively correlated with age-standardized receptive vocabulary scores and negatively correlated with reaction time on a receptive grammar test outside the scanner. Thus, individual differences in language skills were associated with changes in the network in response to changing task demands. These preliminary findings in a small sample of typically developing children suggest that the investigation of individual differences may prove useful in elucidating the underlying neural mechanisms of language disorders in children.

from Brain and Language

Implicit statistical learning in language processing: Word predictability is the key

Fundamental learning abilities related to the implicit encoding of sequential structure have been postulated to underlie language acquisition and processing. However, there is very little direct evidence to date supporting such a link between implicit statistical learning and language. In three experiments using novel methods of assessing implicit learning and language abilities, we show that sensitivity to sequential structure – as measured by improvements to immediate memory span for structurally-consistent input sequences – is significantly correlated with the ability to use knowledge of word predictability to aid speech perception under degraded listening conditions. Importantly, the association remained even after controlling for participant performance on other cognitive tasks, including short-term and working memory, intelligence, attention and inhibition, and vocabulary knowledge. Thus, the evidence suggests that implicit learning abilities are essential for acquiring long-term knowledge of the sequential structure of language – i.e., knowledge of word predictability – and that individual differences on such abilities impact speech perception in everyday situations. These findings provide a new theoretical rationale linking basic learning phenomena to specific aspects of spoken language processing in adults, and may furthermore indicate new fruitful directions for investigating both typical and atypical language development.

from Cognition

Individual differences in false recall: A latent variable analysis

The relation between intrusions in several different recall tasks was examined in the current study. Intrusions from these tasks were moderately correlated and formed a unitary intrusion factor. This factor was related to other cognitive ability measures including working memory capacity, judgments of recency, and general source-monitoring ability. Individual differences in source-monitoring ability fully mediated the relation between working memory capacity, judgments of recency, and intrusions in recall. Theoretically, individual differences in false recall may result, in part, from differences in preretrieval and post-retrieval source-monitoring processes in addition to lure activation. Future models of false recall should integrate theses source-monitoring mechanisms to fully account for various intrusions that occur in standard recall tasks.

from the Journal of Memory and Language

Measures of Hearing Threshold and Temporal Processing across the Adult Lifespan

Psychophysical data on hearing sensitivity and various measures of supra-threshold auditory temporal processing are presented for large groups of young (18-35 y), middle-aged (40-55 y) and older (60-89 y) adults. Hearing thresholds were measured at 500, 1414 and 4000 Hz. Measures of temporal processing included gap-detection thresholds for bands of noise centered at 1000 and 3500 Hz, stimulus onset asynchronies for monaural and dichotic temporal-order identification for brief vowels, and stimulus onset/offset asynchronies for the monaural temporal masking of vowel identification. For all temporal-processing measures, the impact of high-frequency hearing loss in older adults was minimized by a combination of low-pass filtering the stimuli and use of high presentation levels. The performance of the older adults was worse than that of the young adults on all measures except gap-detection threshold at 1000 Hz. Middle-aged adults performed significantly worse than the young adults on measures of threshold sensitivity and three of the four measures of temporal-order identification, but not for any of the measures of temporal masking. Individual differences are also examined among a group of 124 older adults. Cognition and age were found to be significant predictors, although only 10-27% of the variance could be accounted for by these predictors.

from Hearing Research

Individual differences in the joint effects of semantic priming and word frequency revealed by RT distributional analyses: The role of lexical integrity

Abstract
Word frequency and semantic priming effects are among the most robust effects in visual word recognition, and it has been generally assumed that these two variables produce interactive effects in lexical decision performance, with larger priming effects for low-frequency targets. The results from four lexical decision experiments indicate that the joint effects of semantic priming and word frequency are critically dependent upon differences in the vocabulary knowledge of the participants. Specifically, across two Universities, additive effects of the two variables were observed in means, and in RT distributional analyses, in participants with more vocabulary knowledge, while interactive effects were observed in participants with less vocabulary knowledge. These results are discussed with reference to [Borowsky, R., & Besner, D. (1993). Visual word recognition: A multistage activation model. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 19, 813–840] multistage account and [Plaut, D. C., & Booth, J. R. (2000). Individual and developmental differences in semantic priming: Empirical and computational support for a single-mechanism account of lexical processing. Psychological Review, 107, 786–823] single-mechanism model. In general, the findings are also consistent with a flexible lexical processing system that optimizes performance based on processing fluency and task demands.

from the Journal of Memory and Language

Temperamental profiles and linguistic development: Differences in the quality of linguistic production in relation to temperament in children of 28 months

The temperamental constellations that can be found in the infant population may influence the development trajectories of single domains of knowledge, such as that relative to language. The main objective of this study is to identify temperamental profiles to which one associates different levels of linguistic competence and to identify the profile associated with the highest risk for language acquisition. The temperamental characteristics of a sample of 106 children of 28 months attending day-care centres were surveyed and three temperamental profiles were highlighted: a profile typical of the Italian population which grouped most of the children; another made up of easily distractible and not very persistent children, who show a poor capacity to modulate motor activity and finally, the third with children inhibited in new situations. A comparison of the three groups on the basis of the level of linguistic competence revealed important differences regarding certain indices such as the vocabulary size and composition: in particular, the group of “inattentive” children has a more “immature” vocabulary composition, characterised by the presence of more primitive components of the lexical repertory.

from Infant Behavior and Development

Temperamental profiles and linguistic development: Differences in the quality of linguistic production in relation to temperament in children of 28 months

The temperamental constellations that can be found in the infant population may influence the development trajectories of single domains of knowledge, such as that relative to language. The main objective of this study is to identify temperamental profiles to which one associates different levels of linguistic competence and to identify the profile associated with the highest risk for language acquisition. The temperamental characteristics of a sample of 106 children of 28 months attending day-care centres were surveyed and three temperamental profiles were highlighted: a profile typical of the Italian population which grouped most of the children; another made up of easily distractible and not very persistent children, who show a poor capacity to modulate motor activity and finally, the third with children inhibited in new situations. A comparison of the three groups on the basis of the level of linguistic competence revealed important differences regarding certain indices such as the vocabulary size and composition: in particular, the group of “inattentive” children has a more “immature” vocabulary composition, characterised by the presence of more primitive components of the lexical repertory.

from Infant Behavior and Development

“The relationship between the discourse knowledge and the writing performance of elementary-grade students”: Correction to Olinghouse and Graham (2009).

Reports an error in “The relationship between the discourse knowledge and the writing performance of elementary-grade students” by Natalie G. Olinghouse and Steve Graham (Journal of Educational Psychology, 2009[Feb], Vol 101[1], 37-50). The DOI published was incorrect. The correct DOI for this article is provided in the erratum. (The following abstract of the original article appeared in record 2009-01936-013.) This study examined whether discourse knowledge about various forms of writing predicted young developing writers’ (Grade 2 and Grade 4 students) story writing performance once 4 writing (handwriting fluency, spelling, attitude toward writing, advanced planning) and 3 nonwriting (grade, gender, basic reading skills) variables were controlled. It also examined whether Grade 4 students (18 boys, 14 girls) possessed more discourse knowledge than Grade 2 students (18 boys, 14 girls). Students wrote a story and responded to a series of questions designed to elicit their declarative and procedural knowledge about the characteristics of good writing in general and stories in particular as well as their knowledge about how to write. Five aspects of this discourse knowledge (substantive, production, motivation, story elements, and irrelevant) together made a unique and significant contribution to the prediction of story quality, length, and vocabulary diversity beyond the 7 control variables. In addition, older students possessed greater knowledge about the role of substantive processes, motivation, and abilities in writing. Findings support the theoretical propositions that discourse knowledge is an important element in early writing development and that such knowledge is an integral part of the knowledge-telling approach to writing. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved)

from the Journal of Educational Psychology