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Multidisciplinary Approaches to Child and Adult Language Acquisition

Symposium Report by Katherine Kerschen and Alex Magnuson

On Friday, October 5th, approximately 120 researchers from the Penn State community—as well as other North American and European universities—came together to engage in talks and participate in a roundtable discussion by six international experts on language acquisition and processing, including two Penn State alumna, Natasha Tokowicz and Nina Vyatkina. Co-sponsored and co-organized by the Center for Language Acquisition and the Center for Language Science, the symposium’s central aim was to bring together the approaches of these two centers and to enhance interactions and collaborations between researchers working on different aspects of first and second language acquisition, as emphasized by Richard Page, the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of Liberal Arts, in his opening remarks on Friday morning.

Adele Goldberg (Princeton University) began the symposium with a presentation on first language acquisition and the process of how children acquire grammatical constructions in their native language. As Goldberg explained, this process can lead children to be both more and less conservative generalizers than adult speakers. The subsequent five talks all focused on second language learners and speakers from a diverse range of perspectives. The talks by Natasha Tokowicz (University of Pittsburgh), Leah Roberts (University of York, UK) and Sharon Unsworth (Radboud University, The Netherlands) examined the connections between second language processing and acquisition, but each emphasized a different aspect of the language system: lexical comprehension in adult L2 acquisition (Tokowicz), sentence processing and grammatical knowledge in adult L2 acquisition (Roberts), and cross-linguistic influence in production in child L2 acquisition (Unsworth). The last set of talks shifted from psycholinguistic perspectives to a consideration of the pedagogical contexts of second language learning. Kim McDonough (Concordia University, Canada) spoke on the role of visual cues in face-to-face interactions in a second language, while Nina Vyatkina (University of Kansas) closed the symposium with a discussion concerning the use of corpora in second language instruction.

Friday’s symposium and roundtable discussion were preceded by a professional development workshop and a poster session on Thursday afternoon. The workshop consisted of presentations and Q&A sessions about the tenure-track in academic careers (Vyatkina), developing effective writing habits (Tokowicz), journal submissions and the editorial process (Roberts), and time and stress management (Unsworth). Nearly 30 graduate students and early-career faculty participated in the workshop, which was immediately followed by a poster presentation session in the HUB, in which over two dozen researchers presented their current research on language acquisition and processing. Throughout the two-hour event, there were lively discussions and many questions at all of the posters, which represented methodologies ranging from corpus analysis to EEG recordings and covered topics ranging from heritage language acquisition to syntactic processing in second language learners.     

As seen by the diversity of the talks and posters, this symposium created a forum for a true exchange of ideas across disciplinary boundaries. Fortunately for language researchers at Penn State, this symposium was only the first in a series of joint-speaker events between the Center for Language Acquisition and Center for Language Science. Additional events are planned for the next two academic years, laying the groundwork for the development of greater cross-disciplinary collaboration between students and faculty from both centers.