Dynamics of Language Processing and the Consequences for New Language Learning

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Bice, Kinsey L
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 27, 2018
Committee Members:
  • Judith F Kroll, Dissertation Advisor
  • Michele Theresa Diaz, Committee Chair
  • Paola Eulalia Dussias, Committee Member
  • Daniel J Weiss, Committee Member
  • Carrie Neal Jackson, Outside Member
  • bilingualism
  • language learning
  • ERPs
  • language processing
  • trajectory of learning
Learning a new language as an adult is difficult and many fail to acquire high proficiency. Individual differences in late language learning have been partially, but not fully, accounted for by factors such as working memory and native language (L1) performance. An overlooked observation in research that attempts to characterize successful language learning is that bilinguals consistently outperform monolinguals in acquiring new languages. When bilinguals are learning a new language, they can draw on their past experience. That experience encompasses both language-specific skills, such as managing the dynamics of cross-language interaction, as well as domain-general learning skills that may enable language regulation and control. In contrast, for monolingual learners, there is only the opportunity to transfer existing L1 knowledge and general cognitive skills. The hypothesis tested in this dissertation is that previous language experience and individual differences guide language processing in the established language(s), and the trajectory and outcome of new language learning. The first study presented in the dissertation examined systematic variation in language processing across bilinguals’ two languages to discern the locus(es) of variation, and whether they were similar for both languages or were fundamentally different in the native and second language. The results demonstrated that there is meaningful variation in proficiency in both the L1 and L2 that is related to the patterns of brain responses in both languages, but there were also effects of domain-general biases toward different aspects of language and working memory. The second study tracked the trajectory and outcome of language learning in behavioral and neural measures as a function of language experience. While the behavioral measures revealed similar trajectories and performance at test, the neural measures revealed different mechanisms that produced the behavioral effects, and different trajectories for explicit and implicit aspects of learning. Together, the results from both studies reveal qualitative similarities in language processing, but also qualitative differences in new language learning that result from different experiences with previous language learning.