MiLL directors contribute to language teacher-researcher event

MiLL directors Dr Heather Marsden and Prof. Roumyana Slabakova recently gave talks at a language teacher-researcher event at the  University of the Basque Country in Spain. Read a full report of the event below, courtesy of MiLL member Eloi Puig-Mayenco, a PhD student at the University Autónoma de Barcelona. 

Vitoria-Gasteiz is a beautiful and vibrant city. Plus, the University of the Basque Country hosts one of the top language acquisition research labs in Spain: the Language and Speech Laboratory (LASLAB). On 6 November 2015, LASLAB hosted a workshop aimed at bringing together research on multilingual language acquisition and the foreign language classroom. This is also one of the core aims of the Meaning in Language Learning network, so perhaps it was no surprise that both co-directors of MiLL, Heather Marsden and Roumyana Slabakova were invited speakers of the workshop. The main question debated in the workshop was how and to what extent there is a link between the teaching and research community.

Prof. Juana Liceras (University of Ottawa) was the first speaker and she made it clear that she strongly believed that teacher education should provide the teacher-to-be with some tools to be able to explain what really goes on in second language acquisition. She discussed two phenomena: the first one was relative clauses and resumptive pronouns; and the second one—probably less studied, but equally interesting—inflection and derivation in compounding. One of her conclusions was that if teachers know about these phenomena linguistically speaking, they will be able to spot problems or issues that might come up in the classroom.

Dr. Heather Marsden (University of York) was the second plenary speaker. Her talk was on how to exploit grammar-meaning interactions in the second language classroom. She highlighted that she comes from a theoretical-linguistics standpoint in second language acquisition research, but that she strongly believes that what we find in our research should be passed on to the teaching communities who actually teach languages. She presented two case studies that dealt with Arabic learners of English acquiring the polarity item any and English learners of Spanish acquiring S-V word order. She argued that these results can (and should be) informative to the foreign language teacher. The talk ended with a video by the Meaning in Language Learning Network which explained S-V Spanish word order, as an example of bridging the gap between teachers and researchers.

The third speaker was Prof. Roumyana Slabakova (University of Southampton) who discussed current L3 acquisition questions and presented her model of L3 acquisition (work-in-progess). We were fortunate to hear her talk and discuss her work in progress. She started by talking of current models and saying why she thought those models needed fine-tuning, she discussed the claims of the models and put forward thoughts on those claims. She backed up her presentation with two recent studies on acquisition of English as L3 by Basque-Spanish bilinguals, work done in collaboration with Prof. García-Mayo. She finalised the intense hour by drawing some applications this can have on the multilingual classroom.

Dr. Ludovica Serratrice (University of Manchester) then talked about bilingualism and the effects of being a bilingual and what repercussions this can have in a classroom. She mainly discussed Italian-English and Spanish-Italian bilinguals. She showed that relative amount of exposure to the languages is a predictor for differences found in childhood bilingualism, when they interpret morphosyntactic and discourse-pragmatic aspects of languages. She also implied that this is highly important as these bilinguals in their school years, and teachers could benefit from these findings, as they shed light on what to expect from bilinguals.

Then, we had the opportunity to listen to Prof. VanPatten (Michigan State University) via skype (this clearly shows we are in the 21st Century). His talk was thought-provoking, because he advocated for an elimination of the classic grammar rules, as they are usually taught, in the foreign language classroom. He presented evidence from Spanish and also discussed his experience as a teacher of Spanish. He claimed that we should really know whether we want learners to remember a rule or actually acquire a linguistic phenomenon. I believe the key question behind the talk was whether we really want learners to pass an exam on several “linguistic” rules or to communicate and acquire the target language.

The day ended with a session for discussion where the five presenters answered questions and talked about possible initiatives that should be taken into account when conducting research. Participants and presenters agreed that bridging the gap between teachers and researchers is of great importance. Funding was another issue mentioned in the discussion, if funding does not come through, research will not be possible. So a personal note for funding institutions: invest, invest in researchers such as the ones who presented at the workshop, they will probably help your societies learn foreign languages (or at least understand why some extremely advanced L3 speakers of English still say things like: “The talk, I wanted to hear it” as pointed out in Slabakova’s talk).