Learning a second language: Research helps improve methods of teaching

Caroline Henneman

Kent State sponsors student and professional research programs each year, providing about 30 million dollars annually in extramural funding, like conference support and grants, for research.

The Department of English and the Department of Modern and Classical Language houses research that specifically studies second languages and how the brain learns a language that they do not natively speak.

Experiments conducted in the past few years have added to the understanding of what happens in the brain when people read, write, comprehend, listen and speak in a second language and how to better teach it.

Here is only a few of the many studies done at Kent State on second language learning.


Cognitive linguistics is the study of how the brain learns language.

Though past linguists attributed language to an abnormality in memory, Dr. Phillip Hamrick explains that recent research shows it’s not an abnormality, but a deeper complexity to the human memory. Hamrick, an assistant professor in the English Department, is the principal investigator of the Language and Cognition Research Lab.

“Tell me an exact sentence you heard last Tuesday — you can’t,” Hamrick said. “So if you look at memory in that way, you aren’t using memory to learn. It turns out your memory is a lot more flexible and powerful than we thought.”

The first research projects Hamrick worked on tried to understand what roles general cognitive abilities like attention, memory and our ability to categorize things play in language learning.

He contributed to multiple studies that included experiments in eye tracking and brain imaging techniques like Electroencephalography (EEG).

This led to his primary studies of how learning a second language is affected by age.

After watching his niece learn Spanish faster than he was able to, Hamrick began research to understand why children can learn a second language faster and more easily than adults.

First and perhaps most unfortunately, is there are actual biological changes in your first few years of life, and it changes how your synapses in your brain fire to perceive the sounds of different languages,” said Hamrick.

Native language acts as a filter for all languages learned after that. The brain compares sounds to what it already understands and throws out new words that make less sense. As a person grows up, the filter becomes stronger because the more experience they have with its first language, the more your brain focuses on that language.

The kind of memory kids use compared to adults also affects why they learn a second language easier.

A kid, Hamrick explains, relies on procedural memory, memory to ride a bike or swing a bat or learn grammar and put sentences together.

A teenager and older begins using declarative memory, which remembers information like the capital of Ohio, the date of the Civil War and so on. The older someone is, the harder it is to use procedural memory, making it hard to learn a language.

Overall, there are three main indicators to how well someone will learn a language.

The main and most important indicator is age.

The next is aptitude. Aptitude is a person’s ability to “learn language like a puzzle.”

“If someone hands a group a textbook on a language they’ve never learned and told you to understand it, the people with high aptitude will be able to figure it out faster than the rest,” Hamrick said.

The three aptitudes that play a major role in language learning is the aptitude to remember sounds, words and grammar.

The last indicator is motivation. Someone who is more eager and open to learning a new language will learn faster than someone forced to take the class.

There has been no definitive findings that aptitude can be increased through testing or teaching, but Hamrick hopes to continue research in that area so people with high motivation and low aptitude can succeed at learning the language they work tirelessly to understand.

Hamrick will also continue language studies through experiments with animals. He wants to see how an animal’s brain acts when learning and listening to a second language compared to a human’s brain.

He believes there are answers within these experiments that can help better language learning.

Reading and Writing

Within teaching a second language, professionals teach skills in reading and writing as two of the five categories (speaking, listening and comprehension as the other three categories).

Dr. Ryan Miller, an assistant professor in the Teaching English as a Second Language program, focuses in these two areas for his research.

In reading, he studies how learners use reading skills in their native language to understand reading in another language.

For example, Miller said someone who speaks English primarily, and knows English grammar really well, will learn second language grammar structure faster than their friend who hates grammar.

In the fall, Miller plans to start a research project that will focus on Arabic speaking students and how they use the Arabic root system to learn English.  

Miller explains how semitic languages, like Arabic and Hebrew, have a system where words with the same roots have similar meanings.



For example, “kitaab”, “kaatib” and “yaktub” are all Arabic words that use the same three root letters: K-T-B.  

This K-T-B family is used to express the idea of writing. “Kitaab” means “book”, “kaatib” means “author” and “yaktub” is the verb “he or she writes”.

These experiments will show how students from Arabic-speaking countries can use this to understand patterns in English in order to learn new words.

His other focus, writing, takes a slightly different perspective.

Miller analyzed different types of writings to help teach specialized English to foreign exchange students so they excel within their majors.

Writing an essay for College Writing I is really different than writing a chemistry report, and Miller finds those differences to better prepare students for their major classes.

He used history papers as an example of a type of writing he has examined. He worked closely with a history professor and asked for a sample of a good history paper compared to a bad one.

“We found that a good history paper is tentative where a bad paper was purely factual. For example, instead of writing ‘this happened and then this happened,’ you should be an interpretation of an event,” said Miller.

Miller’s research in writing is a continuous project he plans to continue with in the future.


Miller and Hamrick helped graduate student Josiah Murphy conduct research on how prior vocabulary knowledge in a new language and their declarative memory, which remembers facts and events, affects learning vocabulary in that new language.

Murphy explains that within the study, they found the Matthew Effect played a huge role in vocabulary development.

The Matthew Effect is the idea that those who are already successful will have more opportunity to become more successful while those who are not already successful will have less opportunities to become great. (For more information on the Matthew Effect, click here.)

In language, the Matthew Effect shows that a student who already goes into class knowing, for example, 25 words will learn vocabulary at an exponentially faster rate than someone who only already knew 10 words.



“The results from our research concluded that it really doesn’t matter about declarative memory if you don’t already have prior knowledge,” Murphy said.

After speaking in a conference about her findings in Chicago in March, Murphy hopes to continue this study to focus in on what affects vocabulary learning other than the Matthew Effect.

Caroline Henneman is a humanities reporter. Contact her at [email protected]