Research Gains Insights into Mechanisms for Second Language Acquisition

Learning second languages as adults depends on the way we speak our native languages, according to new research published by NYU Shanghai Professor of Neural and Cognitive Sciences Xing Tian in the journal Scientific Reports. Tian found that motor and sensory circuits formed during acquisition of native languages exert a great influence on their acquisition of a second language.

In the study, researchers asked Mandarin speakers to learn two foreign vowels – one Dutch vowel that is similar to Mandarin, and the other a less similar German vowel. The participants were first brought under a condition where they could not hear their own speech during the learning phase, so that they could only rely on the sensory motor connections of their native language and the memory of target sound for learning. Tian discovered that these participants could not learn either of these foreign sounds without auditory feedback. This suggested that established motor-sensory connections for their native language hinder second language learning.

The researchers then made the auditory feedback available to the participants. When participants could hear what and how they pronounced, they could only learn the German vowel that was less familiar to the Mandarin participants.

“The variance in these participants’ performances is critical.  Previous studies have demonstrated that goals and feedback are important components for learning. In contrast, our work shows that the established sensorimotor connections for speaking native languages can have a significant impact on speech learning. It appears that the sensorimotor connections cannot directly interact with goals to enable learning. Even when the feedback is available, the targeted language sounds should be distinct from one’s native one, presumably because one is less interfered by the established motor-sensory system from his native language when he pronounces.” says Tian.

Xiaoluan Liu, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU Shanghai, also contributed to this study.

Tian’s research was supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China 31500914, Major Projects Program of the Shanghai Municipal Science and Technology Commission (STCSM) 15JC1400104 and 17JC1404104, Program of Introducing Talents of Discipline to Universities, Base B16018, a grant from the New York University Global Seed Grants for Collaborative Research (85-6570-G0757-R4551), and the JRI Seed Grants for Research Collaboration from NYU-ECNU Institute of Brain and Cognitive Science at NYU Shanghai. 

Journal Reference:

Liu, X., & Tian, X. (2018). The functional relations among motor-based prediction, sensory goals and feedback in learning non-native speech sounds: Evidence from adult Mandarin Chinese speakers with an auditory feedback masking paradigm. Scientific reports8 (1), 11910.