A Short Research Visit to the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language

In September 2019, I had the pleasure to spend a week at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL) in San Sebastian, Spain as a visiting researcher. It was a productive and an eye-opening trip, with ample opportunities to network with other researchers. This fruitful trip was made possible through the LuCiD Travel Award.

During my visit, I presented part of my PhD work – an observational study of preschool teacher talk – to a group of researchers working in the area of language processing and bilingual language acquisition. The study looked into how preschool teachers communicate with monolingual English children and children learning English as an additional language (EAL) and aimed to identify characteristics of preschool teacher talk that are important for EAL children’s acquisition of English. As researchers at BCBL mostly design lab-based studies to investigate language acquisition and processing, they were keen and excited to hear about my work based on naturalistic observations. My presentation sparked an interesting discussion about potential new ways to analyse my data and possible directions for future research. We talked about the possibility of including linguistic distance between the EAL children’s first language and the English language to see whether this influences the EAL children’s acquisition of English. For instance, is it easier for children speaking a first language that is more similar to the English language to learn English as a second/additional language? We also discussed how my analysis on the teachers’ use of different parts of speech could potentially be done differently. To extend this work, the group at BCBL and I agreed that it would be interesting to look at bilingual schools and see how teacher talk in each of the languages influences children’s acquisition of the two languages, and whether children learning two additional languages at the same time would benefit from the same teacher talk characteristics as used with children learning only one additional language.

The bulk of the visit was devoted to developing a fellowship application with Dr Marina Kalashnikova. Dr Kalashnikova’s work focuses on early language acquisition and bilingualism. We developed a project to look into how social information influences monolingual and bilingual infants’ learning of the meaning of words through cross-situational statistical learning – a word-learning strategy whereby a language learner tracks the co-occurrences of words and objects across multiple situations. Part of my PhD focuses on how social information within a learning situation affects how monolingual and bilingual adults learn one or two names for an object through cross-situational statistics, and the proposed project for the fellowship will extend this portion of my PhD work. Many previous cross-situational word-learning studies that involved the learning of words that do not follow the mutual exclusivity assumption (e.g. that an object tends to have only one name), were done with adults. However, we know that children are sensitive to multiple cues when they try to figure out the meaning of words and that they tend to weigh cues differently across development. For example, infants tend to rely heavily on attentional cues early on and then switch to rely on social cues from around 16 months. The aim of the proposed project for the fellowship is to gain a clearer picture of how infants integrate different cues to learn words.

During my week at BCBL, I also had the chance to visit the research labs (the babylab and adult research unit). This was an eye-opening experience, as I received all my research training at Lancaster University. There is one marked difference between the BCBL babylab and the one at Lancaster – the BCBL babylab trains research assistants on a range of methodologies and on-going projects, whereas we usually recruit and train different research assistants for different projects. BCBL’s strategy presents some benefits to both the research assistants and the lead researchers. From the research assistants’ perspective, they can receive training on different methodologies and be involved in multiple projects. For the lead researchers, this would mean a larger research team working on the same project, which can make scheduling for testing easier. For adult testing, BCBL offers a multi-site lab, with the exact same facilities at several locations in the city and all data synched to a central network. This arrangement is helpful for recruiting research participants and makes testing participants who live far away from the institute easier. Apart from a babylab, BCBL also has established links with local schools for testing young children. They train a research assistant on all projects that involve testing at schools, and the research assistant is responsible for all the testing. The idea of having a designated person to test at schools can build a close relationship with schools and at the same time ensure that no school is being tested too heavily (e.g., no concurrent projects). These are some useful strategies that other labs can adopt if the resources allow.

My visit to BCBL also presented me with ample opportunities to network with researchers who work on language acquisition and bi- and multilingualism. Apart from having a nice discussion with the research group following my presentation and working extensively with Dr Kalashnikova, I also had the chance to chat with Dr Efthymia Kapnoula, a postdoctoral researcher at BCBL, about my cross-situational word-learning study with adults. In particular, we discussed some issues about testing bilinguals. In my study, due to recruitment practicalities, my bilingual group consisted of adults who were bilingual in a range of languages (i.e., not the same two languages). Dr Kapnoula said that it would be interesting to see whether linguistic distances between the two languages matter, and whether the number of unique and overlapping words in the languages that the bilinguals spoke would affect how well they learn one or two names for an object. This would be an interesting extension for my project.

Overall, my visit to BCBL was short but fruitful. I find all the input, feedback, and discussion on my work constructive, helpful, and inspiring. I thank all the friendly and welcoming researchers I have met at BCBL. I would like to particularly express my gratitude to Dr Kalashnikova for hosting me and developing the fellowship application with me. Last but definitely not least, I am very grateful to LuCiD for the travel award that made this visit possible.


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