Presson and MacWhinney - Second Language Grammar

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Adult second language learners often fail to acquire enough fluency in the new language to support smooth communicative interactions. The studies described here explore the hypothesis that robustness can be markedly improved through basic skill training based on three related pedagogical methods: graduated interval recall, resonant co-training, and cue focusing. This prediction will be tested in the context of in vivo and laboratory studies of online learning of Spanish and Chinese.

Background & Significance

The central controversy in the study of second language acquisition is the status of the Critical Period Hypothesis. As formulated first by Penfield & Roberts (Penfield & Roberts, 1959) and then later by Lenneberg (1967), this hypothesis holds that, after some critical age, second languages (L2s) cannot be learned to full native-speaker competence. This critical period has been variously linked to age 2 for lexical learning (Weber-Fox & Neville, 1996) and perception (Kuhl, Conboy, Padden, Nelson, & Pruitt, 2005), age 6 for phonology (Flege, Yeni-Komshian, & Liu, 1999), age 13 for syntax (Johnson & Newport, 1989), or late adulthood for fossilization (MacWhinney, 2005). However, recent research (Hakuta, Bialystok, & Wiley, 2003; Wiley, Bialystok, & Hakuta, 2005) has cast doubt on many of these claims (MacWhinney, in press).

Despite these recent challenges, educators, academics, and the general public continue to believe in the reality of some Critical Period. What makes the notion of a Critical Period so compelling is that fact that adult second language learners often report problems acquiring a native accent in L2 and in using their L2 fluently. The approach to this issue that we have taken is to elaborate an extended version of the Competition Model (MacWhinney, in press) that accounts for age-related effects in second language learning through the mechanisms of entrenchment, transfer, and incomplete resonance. This new Unified Model makes strong predictions about the ways in which age-related effects can be overcome through effective teaching. In particular, the model holds that the problems that adults have in second language learning arise from the entrenched nature of the first language (L1), inadequate exposure to L2, and inappropriate teaching of L2. To correct these problems, teaching of adult learners needs to utilize these three methods: 1. Graduated interval recall, 2. Resonant cotraining, and 3. Cue focusing. The claim is that L2 instruction that incorporates these three methods will lead to marked improvements in fluency and robustness of learning.


graduated interval recall

This approach to the learning of items (words, sounds, constructions) in a second language was first elaborated by Pimsleur (1967), although components of the idea can be found as far back as Ebbinghaus (1885). Recently, Pavlik et al. (in press) have formalized the parameters controlling this procedure mathematically in the context of the ACT-R model of cognition. The core idea here is most easily illustrated in the context of the learning of a list of new L2 vocabulary items (Nation, 2001). Immediately after a word is presented, learners are almost always able to recall it. However, if we let a minute pass by, the memory trace drops below threshold and retrieval success drops with it. What Pimsleur discovered was that, if we retest the item before the memory trace decays too much, recall will be successful. Once an item has been recalled successfully once, repeated recalls trials can be spaced further and further apart. The neuronal basis of this process has now been elaborated in terms of synaptic reentry reinforcement model of hippocampal functioning (Wittenberg, Sullivan, & Tsien, 2002). Pavlik (in press) has shown that optimization of the intervals required for recall can lead to a two-fold improvement in vocabulary learning. This experimental work is now being extended to the in vivo study of online learning of Chinese vocabulary (Pavlik et al., in press) and pinyin dictation (Zhang, MacWhinney, & Wu, in preparation) in the PSLC online and offline courses. It has also been applied to the learning of Spanish vocabulary through a simple online tutor. The method of graduated interval recall is also being applied to the learning of French gender (Presson, Pavlik, MacWhinney, & Jones, in preparation). Each of these three efforts (Chinese vocabulary, Chinese pinyin, French gender) relies on the same code base for optimization developed by Pavlik.

resonant cotraining

explicit cue focusing



social disincentives

Research questions

Adult second language learning, unlike first language acquisition, must deal with learning barriers produced by L1 (first language) entrenchment, transfer, and social disincentives. In order to overcome these barriers, adult learners can rely on specialized reconfigurations of learning methods used by children learning their first language. These supports include: (1) graduated interval recall, (2) resonant co-training, and (3) explicit cue focusing. Presence of only one or two of these supports will lead to good learning, but the best and most robust learning occurs when all three are operative. This means that the overall hypothesis cannot be evaluated by a single definitive experiment. Instead, a series of experiments must be run to evaluate various configurations of the components. Also, it is possible that the effects of these methods may vary across linguistic levels (phonology, orthography, reading, lexicon, syntax, pragmatics, fluency). However, evidence for the effects of any combination of these supports in achieving any level of robustness on any given level would still provide important clues regarding ways to enhance the overall robustness of second language learning. This information could also be useful in understanding robustness in other domains.

Study One


Independent Variables

Dependent Variables



Study Two


Independent Variables

Dependent Variables



Further Information

Connections to Other Studies

Annotated Bibliography


Future Plans