The 31st Second Language Research Forum
Building Bridges Between Disciplines: SLA in Many Contexts
October 18-21, 2012

Conference Program


Colloquium IV: Exploring the Links between Executive Function, Second Language Acquisition and Bilingual Language Processing


Organized by:
Dr. Anat Prior
University of Haifa (Israel)


Executive functions are a set of general purpose control mechanisms that regulate cognition and action (Miyake & Friedman, 2012). The construct of executive function includes three components: updating - the ability to constantly monitor and refresh the content of working memory, inhibitory control – overriding dominant responses and suppressing interference from distracters and shifting – flexibly switching between cognitive sets or tasks. Recent research suggests that bilinguals might enjoy enhanced executive function by virtue of utilizing these domain general mechanisms for managing competition between their two languages (Bialystok, 2010). Taking these findings as a point of departure, the colloquium has two interrelated goals: First, to characterize the role of executive functions in bilingual language processing and identify how executive functions allow for proficient performance. Second, to examine the contribution of executive functions to acquisition of a second or additional language, by monolinguals and bilinguals. Bringing together research addressing both these questions, with the joint focal point of executive functions, will allow for a broad examination of the issue and promote the emergence of common themes. The colloquium will also advance the general theoretical debate regarding the relative contributions of domain general skills and domain-specific linguistic abilities to bilingual language acquisition and processing.

The Role of Executive Function in Second Language Acquisition
Anat Prior
University of Haifa (Israel)

In this talk I will describe a study examining the predictive role of individual differences in executive function for understanding variability in second language proficiency. The study included native Hebrew speaking undergraduates who differed in their proficiency in English, which they had been studying as a foreign language for 10 years. Using a regression approach we investigated the contribution of working memory, inhibitory control and shifting abilities to English proficiency after controlling for phonological and vocabulary abilities in both languages. We further examine the role of executive function components for predicting three different aspects of second language abilities: overall proficiency as derived from a college entry exam, reading comprehension, and performance on a grammaticality judgment task specifically relying on the ability to overcome interference from the native language. Results are discussed in light of recent findings linking executive function to bilingual language processing and bilingual life experience.

Linking Individual Differences in Cognitive Control to Bilingual Language Comprehension and Production
Debra Titone & Irina Pivneva
McGill University (Canada)

The exciting hypothesis that bilingualism confers advantages in cognitive control is largely based on comparisons of bilinguals and monolinguals, groups who may differ in many ways. Here, I highlight work from our laboratory investigating this link within bilinguals.  In studies of sentence reading (Pivneva, Mercier & Titone, submitted), we show how cross-language activation (interlingual homograph interference and cognate facilitation) is modulated by several factors including semantic bias of a sentence, L2 history, and individual differences in cognitive control. In studies of language production, we show a similar pattern when bilinguals produce speech to describe a visual display in their L1 or L2 while eye movements are monitored (Pivneva & Titone, submitted), and when they produce extended spontaneous speech in a monologue or dialogue context (Pivneva, Palmer, & Titone, 2012).  These data provide evidence for the presumed mechanism of bilingual advantages in cognitive control.

The role of executive function in novel word learning by bilingual and monolingual children
Margarita Kaushanskaya, Megan Gross, & Milijana Buac
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Previous studies documented bilingual advantages on word-learning tasks in adulthood. The goal of the present work was to examine whether bilingual advantages for word learning can be observed in childhood, and whether executive function skills may underlie these advantages. Monolingual and bilingual children ages 5-7 learned novel words in association with familiar and unfamiliar referents. Children’s executive function skills were tested using a non-linguistic card-sort task indexing shifting abilities. Results revealed that bilingual children outperformed monolingual children only when learning novel words for familiar referents. Moreover, stronger associations between word-learning performance and task-shifting performance were observed for bilingual than for monolingual children. Together, these findings indicate that the effects of bilingualism on learning in childhood may be constrained to situations that resemble native-language acquisition under mutual-exclusivity conditions, and that bilingual advantages on word-learning tasks may be rooted in bilinguals’ ability to rely on domain-general executive function mechanisms during linguistic learning.

The effects of bilingualism on language switching and language-specific attention control in L1
Natalie Phillips
Concordia University (Canada)

Research suggests that being bilingual can shape general aspects of attentional control.  One important mechanism of language is to direct attention to different semantic propositions in an utterance (e.g., “The cat was sitting on a chair,” “The chair had a cat sitting on it,” etc.; Talmy, 2000).   This attention directing mechanism is driven by certain relational elements in the closed-class or grammatical system and, upon encountering these elements, the listener or reader must shift their focus of attention frequently and rapidly.  Study One presents behavioural data (RT) that shows that switching between relational elements is more costly than switching between semantic elements (i.e., general task switching) in monolingual young adults; however, bilinguals showed reduced costs on these difficult relational elements in their L1, suggesting a benefit in language-specific attention.   Study Two presents fMRI data from a modified version of this task, suggesting that language switching per se is associated with activation of specific frontal and subcortical areas.

The contributions of executive functions for predicting adult second language acquisition to high proficiency levels
Jared A. Linck, Meredith M. Hughes, Susan G. Campbell, Noah H. Silbert, Medha Tare, Scott R. Jackson, Benjamin K. Smith, Michael F. Bunting, & Catherine J. Doughty.
University of Maryland

Few adult second language (L2) learners develop high levels of proficiency. Although decades of research on beginning to intermediate stages of L2 learning has identified a number of predictors of the rate of acquisition, little research has examined factors relevant to predicting ultimate attainment to very high levels of L2 proficiency. In this talk, we report on a study designed to examine potential predictors of successful learning to advanced proficiency levels. Predictors included measures of executive functions (updating, inhibition, and set switching) and other cognitive/perceptual processes, including implicit sequence learning, rote learning, long-term memory retrieval efficiency, and non-native phonemic discrimination. Participants were adults with varying degrees of success in L2 learning, including a critical group with high proficiency as indicated by standardized language proficiency tests and on-the-job language use. We discuss the role of executive functions throughout L2 learning and consider implications for theories of bilingual language control.

The scope and time course of inhibitory processes in bilingual speech production
Eleonora Rossi, Rhonda McClain, & Judith F. Kroll
Pennsylvania State University

When bilinguals speak even a single word in one language alone, there is evidence that words in both languages become active and compete for selection.  A set of recent studies suggests that candidates in the native or stronger language may be inhibited to allow spoken production in the second or weaker language. However, neither the scope nor the time course of these inhibitory processes are well understood.  We report new behavioral, ERP, and fMRI data from an extended blocked picture naming task in which the native language was named before or after naming in the second language. The results suggest that there is persistent and long lasting inhibition of the native language following naming in the second language that extends beyond particular words or semantic domains to the bilingual’s entire language. We consider the implications for modeling the consequences of language processing for domain-general enhancements in executive function.

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