Beyond Linguistic Borders: Language Learning Cradled in Cognition

Dr. Jeanette Altarriba will present the James E. Alatis Plenary titled “Beyond Linguistic Borders: Language Learning Cradled in Cognition,” at the TESOL 2016 International Convention & English Language Expo, 8 am, Thursday, 7 April.  

The study of bilingualism and how individuals represent and use more than one language inevitably leads to a very basic question: What is the best way to learn a new language? No matter where a presentation on this topic is given, it is typically a question that is raised by more than one audience member. While theories and data abound, it is still quite remarkable that we have no one method that yields the best way to learn a language. Our program of research has added to this literature in many interesting ways, and we continue to examine how the mind best incorporates new words and new knowledge in a second or third language and the approaches that are involved in language learning.

What Do We Know?

Some of our own research has indicated that pictures might be useful tools to accompany words in the learning of a language, and we know that creating an association between pictures that one already knows to new vocabulary might be useful in the language learning process. However, our own data have shown that if the testing of that new information is to be in a word format (e.g., sentence completion, word matching), the learning of actual word pairs that include old and new actually shows stronger patterns of learning than acquiring vocabulary through the use of pictures.

What did we learn? The ways in which a newly acquired language will be used plays a role in determining the best ways of teaching that new language. We know from cognitive theories of Transfer Appropriate Processing that the way in which one learns or encodes information and the manner in which that information is tested promotes successful learning to the extent that similar processes are involved at both stages. Word-to-word learning can be beneficial especially if the modes of learning are deep, such as considering what category a word belongs to or the semantics or meaning of the new words (Altarriba & Knickerbocker, 2011).

Does Word Type Matter?

Much of our recent work within our laboratory has set about understanding the differences between different word types, such as those that label concrete, abstract, or emotional concepts. So the notion that “one size does not fit all” regarding the learning of languages is made more complex by the knowledge that we have different types of words that are represented in memory in different ways. Characteristics that might be used to define concrete words (e.g., table) may be quite distinct from those that define abstract notions (e.g., liberty) or those that label or otherwise represent an emotional state or object (e.g., love; butterfly).

In some of our work, we have examined how learners of Spanish vocabulary might acquire these word types differentially based on their inherent characteristics. English-speaking monolinguals were taught a set of Spanish words that were concrete (e.g., jewel), emotional (e.g., angry), or abstract (e.g., virtue). They then engaged in a Stroop color-naming task wherein the words appeared in different colors, and the task was to name the color of the word as quickly and as accurately as possible. The slower one is at this task, the higher the likelihood that the reading of the word (which is not part of the task) interferes with color naming. An interesting finding emerged in that emotion words were responded to more quickly than other newly acquired word types. In effect, this work indicates that emotional stimuli in a new language are not as deeply encoded in memory as other word types, at least not at the start of their learning. Emotional components must be learned over time, perhaps experienced in a context, and “felt” before they capture the attention that they do in the native or first language. Thus, we’ve established a gradient in terms of conceptual learning for emotional versus nonemotional words (Altarriba & Basnight-Brown, 2011).

Are There Any New Methods of Language Learning on the Horizon?

James Nairne of Purdue University has reported on a new form of encoding information that may hold some important keys to learning a new language (see Kazanas & Altarriba, 2015, for a review). The notion of Survival or Adaptive Memory has proven to be an immensely useful tool for encoding and learning new information. Participants read the following passage:

In this task, we would like you to imagine that you are stranded in the grasslands of a foreign land, without any basic survival materials. Over the next few months, you’ll need to find steady supplies of food and water and protect yourself from predators. We are going to show you a list of words, and we would like you to rate how relevant each of these words would be for you in this survival situation. Some of the words may be relevant and others may not—it’s up to you to decide.

In subsequent tests of memory for the rated words, memory for those words surpasses measures of memory for words learned through rated pleasantness, self-reference, or even via explicit instructions to learn the words for a future test. We are currently applying this mode of acquisition to the learning of a new language and seeking to understand if there are new ways of learning vocabulary that could enhance the acquisition and storage of new meanings and ultimately the formation of durable and long-lasting memories of language.


Altarriba, J., & Basnight-Brown, D. M. (2011). The acquisition of concrete, abstract, and emotion words in a second language. International Journal of Bilingualism, 16, 446–452.

Altarriba, J., & Knickerbocker, H. (2011). Acquiring second language vocabulary through the use of images and words. In P. Trofimovich & K. McDonough (Eds.), Applying priming methods to L2 learning, teaching and research: Insights from psycholinguistics (pp. 21–48). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kazanas, S. A., & Altarriba, J. (2015). The survival advantage: Underlying mechanisms and extant limitations. Evolutionary Psychology, 13, 360–396.

Jeannette AltarribaDr. Jeanette Altarriba is professor in the Department of Psychology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Dr. Altarriba directs a research program in the areas of bilingual language processing; second language acquisition; and emotion, attention, memory, and cognition. Her research has appeared in numerous scientific journals, she has edited five books, and she has authored multiple book chapters. Dr. Altarriba’s commitment to teaching, mentoring, and student support has been recognized both within her university and internationally through numerous awards including the Dalmas A. Taylor Distinguished Contributions Award and the University and Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and Excellence in Academic Service. As vice provost and dean for undergraduate education, Dr. Altarriba oversees the Office of Undergraduate Education, the Honors College, the Student Engagement Initiative, the Advisement Services Center, the General Education Program, the Center for Achievement, Retention, and Student Success (CARSS), and the Writing and Critical Inquiry Program.

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2 Responses to Beyond Linguistic Borders: Language Learning Cradled in Cognition

  1. Debra Young says:

    I am so excited. The District made me the Supervisor of our English as New Learners Program and I have no knowledge about this area. I am looking forward to learning as much as I can at the conference. I am amazed that there is no recipe to give to my teachers to assist in there instruction. I believe we are doing a good job but I would like our program to become great. Thanks for this information.


    • Jeanette Altarriba says:

      Thank you for your comment. I look forward to presenting our work and to speaking more on language learning theory and data. It would be wonderful to meet you, so please do introduce yourself if our paths should cross.

      Jeanette Altarriba

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