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Language Learning Laments – and Opportunities

My name is Dan Tight, and I’m a linguist. That is to say, I like languages the sounds, the way those sounds combine to form words, the way that words are placed alongside one another to make sentences and the way that those sentences can be interpreted in different ways depending on the context in which they are spoken, just to name a few elements that intrigue me. My primary area of research, however, is the acquisition of Spanish as a second language, something I’ve been doing myself since the seventh grade.

Language learning appeals to me in the same way that pursuits such as golf attract others. Because both are so hard to master, they present a constant challenge. While I will never be a native speaker of Spanish (nor play golf like Jack Nicklaus), my goal always has been to achieve the greatest level of knowledge and proficiency possible (and perhaps be mistaken for a native from time to time), through continual study and practice. Because this is also one of the main objectives I have for my students, it only makes sense that my research would center around how to most effectively facilitate such language development.

Learning a second language can be, as many of us have experienced, both fascinating and frustrating. While it’s a common observation that children are often very effective at learning new languages, the virtues of adult language learners are less frequently extolled. Adults, however, often have certain advantages, such as having more fully acquired their native tongue, being literate and possessing a familiarity with linguistic terminology (e.g., noun, adjective, predicate), which makes it possible to teach them in ways that are different than how children often learn languages. This same knowledge, however, can at times present challenges for adult learners. Some of the first research I conducted, for example, indicated that English speakers tend to take into account a word’s connotations in their native language when guessing its grammatical gender in Spanish, even though the two are largely unrelated. Words like sostén (bra), for example, were erroneously thought to be feminine in Spanish, at least in part because they are strongly associated with women; on the other hand, words like cárcel (jail) were found to have connotations of masculinity and correspondingly were more often thought to be masculine in Spanish.

More recently, some of my research has focused on how English speakers interpret different types of structures when learning Spanish. Unlike English, which generally obeys a strict subject-verb-object word order (e.g., ‘The student greets the professor’), Spanish allows significant flexibility in its sentence structure, with subjects sometimes coming after the verb and objects sometimes preceding it (e.g., Al profesor lo saluda el estudiante). Previous research had shown that students learning Spanish as a second language often misinterpret such sentences as meaning ‘The professor greets the student,’ leading some to propose the existence of a tendency to interpret the first noun in a sentence as the subject.

My research, however, has indicated that this is not always the case. For example, in certain sentences containing only a noun and a verb (e.g., No comprende el hombre—‘The man doesn’t understand’), students tended to interpret the noun correctly as a subject if it appeared before the verb, but incorrectly as an object (e.g., ‘S/he doesn’t understand the man’) if it was placed after the verb. This finding led me to suggest that the typical adult learner of Spanish in the United States also is affected by the word order typical of their native English.

The knowledge that emerges from this type of research has important implications for the classroom because, of course, when teaching adults, we are not working with a blank canvas, but rather complex individuals who bring previous knowledge and experience to bear on their coursework. Thus, as instructors, we must meet them where they are and progress from there. This can be as simple as pointing out that, despite the fact that nearly all nouns in Spanish are either masculine or feminine, this has little to do (at least in the case of inanimate objects) with sex or gender connotations. Other times, it can involve, for example, incorporating specific activities that teach learners to focus on more reliable clues to a Spanish sentence’s meaning than those they are used to attending to in their native language. Knowing where students are coming from, then, allows faculty to better tailor our instruction to address the greatest needs.

My current research, which focuses on student writing in a second language, follows this same theme of meeting today’s students where they are. While the way in which college students speak Spanish may not have changed significantly since I was an undergraduate myself during the final years of the last millennium, the same cannot be said of how they write. Very few of my students these days, for example, carry around a bilingual dictionary; instead, when they need to know a word or phrase in Spanish, they consult any variety of online resources through a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Likewise, students no longer complete handwritten homework assignments in a paper workbook, as this has moved online, as well.

Furthermore, at least in my courses, compositions are not printed out and handed in, but rather uploaded to our course management tool where I electronically grade them and give students feedback to be incorporated into subsequent drafts. Yet very little research to date has looked at what, precisely, students’ writing process looks like in a second language nowadays.

So, over the course of the spring 2014 semester, I invited the students in my Spanish composition course to participate in a study by allowing me to use screen recording software to make videos of their computer screens as they wrote a series of short, low-stakes compositions in a lab. Thankfully, the majority of students graciously agreed to take part, and I am now in the midst of analyzing, among other things, how many words students wrote per minute, how they made accent marks and other special characters, what internet sites they consulted and for what purposes, what the quality of the final product was, and what they were thinking as they wrote (accessed through a think-aloud protocol incorporated into the final composition).

Thanks to a generous Partnership-in-Learning Grant through the Center for Faculty Development, this summer and fall I will have the assistance of one of our Spanish majors in continuing the analysis of the almost 100 screen recordings that were made as part of this research. The findings that emerge from this study will help faculty to better understand the way that today’s college students write in a second language, and thus to more effectively intervene pedagogically.

For my student assistant, who is considering doing graduate work in Spanish applied linguistics, it is my hope that this experience will also be much more an opportunity to learn about a new field; to see how research is designed, conducted, analyzed and disseminated; to consider whether she might be called to think critically about how languages are learned and work skillfully to illuminate the process in her future career; and, perhaps, to develop the same sort of fascination I have with something that is so central to our human experience language.

Associate professor Dr. Daniel Tight teaches Spanish in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. 

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.