In the wild

NWO VIDI-project “Tracking second language acquisition through the wilds of natural language immersion:  A cognitive-experimental approach” (awarded May 2013)

Imagine that you move to a foreign country, say, the Netherlands, for study or work, and you start to learn that language. Possibly, you take a language course first, which will teach you the very basics and enable you to say “Good evening. Nice to meet you. My name is…” or some similarly ‘useful’ phrases. However, in practice, this course knowledge will very soon reach its limits. So many highly relevant words still need to be learned, so many grammatical mistakes corrected, and, of course, the pronunciation will have to be improved (a topic that I will not include in my research, but which is nevertheless highly interesting). You learn these things mainly by listening to others, or possibly by reading (I used to read virtually all Dutch women’s magazines when I was learning Dutch). When you’re lucky, some native speakers might correct you when you’re wrong, but in my experience, people stop doing that very soon – and maybe that’s a good thing too, because who wants to be told that one has been using the wrong determiner for BIKE (fiets) for years? Thus, the only way you can carry on improving your Dutch is by way of the input you get. How do Dutch people call those funny chocolate sprinkles they put on their sandwiches? Listen to your housemates and you’ll know (it’s hagelslag). How do the ‘mean’ things like inflections or determiners work? It’s most likely the daily input that will finally give you that ‘intuition’ to get these things right yourself.

My (most recent) research is on how people (in particular, adults) learn a second language from the natural input they receive ‘in the wild’. I investigate this using both behavioral and neurocognitive methods (EEG). My veni project (2007-2013) was mainly on how people use the language input to correct the errors they stick to (something that is also pessimistically called ‘fossilization’). In the vidi project which I will start early in 2014, I will, together with two PhD students, not only look at how old incorrect (grammatical) patterns are corrected, but also, how something new is learned (namely, new words) without explicit teaching. Again, we will use EEG to get to know something about what’s happening in the brain, but we will also observe language learners in ‘almost-real’ dialogue situations (but, of course, under tightly controlled experimental circumstances).