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Can we talk? Second language learning is research focus for prof and students

SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNING: Lingustics professor Rena Helms-Park (pictured at centre) works with several students to conduct her research, including undergraduates Claudette D'Souza (left) and Ellen Moore (right). Photo by Ken Jones.

How difficult is it to learn a second language? Is it more challenging for some than others?

Rena Helms-Park, an applied linguistics professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and her team of graduate and undergraduate student researchers, are supplying some answers to those questions. They are attending the 2007 Canadian Association of Applied Linguistics conference in Saskatoon in June, where they are scheduled to present their findings on the interaction between first- and second-language lexicons (vocabularies). Next week, Helms-Park and two of the students will be attending a large conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics in Costa Mesa, California.

Their research compares speakers of two very different languages, Romanian and Vietnamese, to examine the transfer process involved in learning a second language. The goal of the research project is to determine whether a Romanian-speaker will experience less difficulty in learning English than a Vietnamese-speaker, because the structure of the English language is more like that of Romanian than Vietnamese. The roots of many words from both English and Romanian are Latinate; therefore a portion of the vocabulary can be interpreted by either speaker, especially in academic discourse.

Helms-Park drew inspiration for this project from her own roots. “In India, it was common to function in different language environments. I travelled a lot and had to adjust to the surroundings,” she said. She speaks Hindi, Urdu and English.

Helms-Park has four students who assist with research: two graduate students, Maria Claudia Petrescu and Vedran Dronjic, plus two undergraduate students, Claudette D’Souza and Ellen Moore, both in fourth year. Between the four of them, they speak Romanian, Vietnamese, French, English, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish.

“A sizable part of my mandate is to provide research opportunities,” said Helms-Park, noting that she saw no better way of doing that than bringing her research to her teaching in order to involve students in real work in the field. “This opportunity will allow the students to realize that they don’t have to think and work inside the box. They can go beyond what other people are doing, and they can excel,” she said.

The students are responsible for test creation for Romanian-speaking learners, data collection and analysis. “Our job is to get in touch with and meet the Romanian and Vietnamese people, to code and input the data into spreadsheets, and to help with statistical analysis and interpretation of the results,” D’Souza said.

Conducting research alongside a faculty member is valuable for students, especially in the undergraduate years, according to the students. “It is rare for professors to include undergraduates on their research team,” said D’Souza, “And so I’m very grateful for the opportunities that Professor Helms-Park has made available to us.” 

The students have enjoyed doing research with a faculty member. “I love the practical aspect of our research, and the fact that we are looking at a question that is relevant to people and can be applied to real life,” said D’Souza. “I have gained extensive exposure to the world of academic research, and since I’m going on to graduate studies in September, this experience will definitely prove useful.”

Moore said languages have always fascinated her. “I love learning about how languages work, how they relate, and how they’re processed,” she said. “Research in second language acquisition and testing is an exciting branch of all of this.”

“The whole process is fascinating, and this experience will benefit me in all further academic work I do because it has shown me where research comes from and the intricacies of the research process,” said Moore. “It has definitely broadened my view of my field of specialty (psycholinguistics) and helped tie together various facts and ideas from my course work. This ‘big picture’ view is something that I don’t think I would have gotten from course work alone.”

D’Souza and Moore are both interested in pursuing careers as speech pathologists. “This is an amazing opportunity that opens a lot of doors,” D’Souza said. “We’ll definitely be more prepared for the real world.”

by Margarita Medynsky and Mary Ann Gratton


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