The University of Iowa

An Unconventional Approach to Learning Foreign Languages

Processing grammar and applying it fluently is one of the most difficult aspects of learning a second language. As a result, many people prioritize learning the rules of grammar before hearing examples and speaking in a new language. While that process may seem intuitive, they could actually be creating more work for themselves.

Mengtian Chen, a recent graduate of the Second Language Acquisition doctoral program, is interested in finding a more effective way for adults to learn second languages and improve their oral communication. Her scholarly research suggests one method common among children in their first language could also work well for adults.

Adults typically learn a second language by studying its grammar and applying rules to speech, but many children master languages via a much different approach. When kids hear a language spoken, be it their first language or others, they listen to a myriad of word patterns and phrases that demonstrate grammar. Research suggests that this variety allows them to extract underlying grammar patterns, automatically process the grammar when speaking, and improve their speech fluency.

“People generally think that variability is detrimental to adults’ second language learning, and we must learn grammar patterns one at a time before moving on to the next one,” says Chen. “That is how adults typically learn a second language, but not children. Through passively hearing a variety of example sentences for certain patterns in oral communication, children actively process – or automatize – those grammar rules in perceiving or producing language.”

Seeing this discrepancy in learning, Chen set out to investigate the effects of word variation for adult language learners. She developed a set of experiments with adult Chinese language participants to measure the impact of word variation and when the pattern is most effective. Results indicated that examples of variation were very effective in helping learners chunk words together with proper grammar. Her research demonstrates that adults are able to automatize grammar in the new language just as children do after hearing a variety of words and patterns.

“The big takeaway of my research is that a certain amount of variety in language input actually boosts adult learners’ speaking fluency – instead of hurting it,” says Chen. “It is contrary to common sense, but that variety in the second language allows adults to produce or perceive the language more quickly and fluently, though it may take effect slowly at first.”

APPLYING RESEARCH TO PRACTICE

Having focused on Chinese instruction as a graduate teaching assistant, Chen did not have to look far to see firsthand the many applications of her research. Her work also offers encouraging implications in the teaching and learning of many other languages.
 
Having completed her thesis, Chen now continues to teach Chinese as a lecturer at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in China. While building on her experiences at Iowa, she has incorporated aspects of her dissertation into some of her pedagogical strategies to educate her students. As a result, Chen has witnessed her students better automatize grammar and internalize rules of the Chinese language.
 
“Since my research focus is on speaking and pronunciation, I pay special attention to my students’ speaking fluency and their pronunciation when they do presentations,” says Chen. “For example, sometimes they set their phrasing boundaries in wrong places when they pause or speak. I explain how to chunk words and set phrase boundaries when this happens, but I will also go further by demonstrating the use of certain patterns with different words and phrases that I have them practice – using the advantages of input variation for grammar pattern production evidenced in my dissertation research.”
 
Chen brings plenty of teaching experience to her position at DKU, having taught English speakers the Chinese language for nine semesters at Iowa. An awardee of the Ballard and Seashore Fellowship in the spring of 2020, Chen took part of this time to research teaching strategies and prepare for her online course roster this past fall. She also notes how the break from teaching allowed her to focus more on her dissertation.
 
The interdisciplinary nature of Chen’s research at Iowa gave her the unique opportunity to work with faculty across a variety of departments. She worked closely with Bob McMurray of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Christine Shea of the Department of Linguistics, and Walter Vispoel of the Department of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations. She acknowledges these professors as being especially helpful in offering advice and guidance with her dissertation.
 
Chen also credits staff from the Graduate College in helping her prepare for a career in academia. She found the workshops and lectures facilitated by faculty and staff there to be extremely helpful in polishing off grant applications and reviewing documents for job interviews. Lisa Kelly, Program Coordinator of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL), recalls how engaged Chen was during this academic and professional development.
 
“Mengtian is a really thoughtful researcher and teacher who cares about her students’ learning, says Kelly. “She developed and implemented a Teaching-as-Research project through the CIRTL program that examined how educational technology tools could positively impact her students’ oral language skills. I enjoyed getting to know her and watching her grow, both as a scholar and a reflective teacher, through her participation in our programs.”
 
In addition to these programs within the Graduate College, Chen seized the opportunity to get more involved with the campus community in a variety of ways. Having initially been awarded the Iowa Recruitment Fellowship, she went on to receive numerous travel grants and research awards from the college, the Graduate and Professional Student Government, and the Graduate Student Senate. Another experience she appreciates came in the last year of her program when she took on a leadership role as Chair of the Graduate and Professional Allocations Committee for GPSG.

“When I entered the University of Iowa in 2015, I wrongly assumed that I would be sacrificing research or learning time by getting involved with other campus services and extracurricular activities,” says Chen. “But actually, those kinds of activities are reciprocal to your doctoral studies. You can meet a lot of interesting people and then be inspired by their ideas – or they can even help with your research, as well as your living or social experience in Iowa. I think that was very important.”