Science & Technology

Biology symposium investigates modes of language learning

How language plays a role in the evolution of human societies remains a fascinating question for language researchers, given the diversity of language learning techniques and abilities. Some McGill researchers, however, are one step closer to finding the answer. On Nov. 15, a symposium on the “Cultural Evolution of Communication” discussed how society plays a role in the formation and learning of language and, conversely, how language plays a role in constructing societies. The event, hosted by Jon Sakata, a professor in McGill’s Department of Biology, presented the research of Pauline Palma, a PhD candidate in experimental psychology, and Logan James, a McGill alumnus who completed a PhD in 2019 with the Department of Biology. 

Pauline Palma: How bilingualism affects the progression of language 

Many have wondered what the advantages of being bilingual are and how bilingual societies differ from monolingual ones at the cognitive level. In her latest research, Palma addressed this question, looking specifically into whether prior linguistic knowledge in individuals can affect language evolution.

In order to test for the ability to learn a language, Palma recruited young adults who identified English as their first language and French as their second. In a training phase, she used two types of word sets as stimuli—a “French-like” word set containing made-up words resembling French words, and an “English-like’ word set containing made-up words resembling English words. 

Each set contained 12 words. However, during the training phase,  Palma only presented nine words to participants, who were then shown all 12 words at the test phase. This technique measured if the participants were able to use what they had learned in the training phase and apply it in the test phase—in other words, the researchers wanted to test whether the bilingual participants were able to learn this “new” language, and whether this had implications for the way they learn language compared to monolingual speakers. 

Palma’s results showed that the learnability of one’s native language, whether that be English or French, increased over time. As well, the structure of a language increases for the English-like languages when learned first, whereas the French-like languages developed structure in both conditions. Palma explained that her results demonstrate a phenomenon in bilinguals called an asymmetric switch cost. 

“An asymmetric switch cost is when switching to your dominant language becomes more difficult because of intuition, which was seen at the societal level,” Palma said. 

Moving forward, Palma hopes to explore whether these results are reproducible and whether individuals’ differences in their modes of language acquisition can alter these results. 

Logan James: The biology of birdsongs

James, who is currently conducting field work in Panama, presented his research on the biology behind the formation of birdsong. In his studies, James used zebra finches as a model to test how environmental factors can have an impact on the sequencing and timing of their songs, and whether or not there are biological biases behind certain song patterns. 

 “So the question we have is, how do [zebra finches] select which pattern to produce and what timing to produce?” James said. “In general, they’re going to be learning this from their fathers.” 

One experiment that he performed was playing back a random birdsong sequence during song learning and observing its impact on zebra finch song production later on. The results showed that even with a randomized input, the birds produce a song that was similar to the formal birdsong of the zebra finch due to certain biological biases. James compares this to how humans process sound.

“There is a similar [process taking place] in humans, where we as humans use these internal filters to produce particular sequences and timings,” James said. 

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