Towards a Unified Theory of L1 and L2 Learning’: Professor Martha C. Pennington Lecture

Oscar MacMillan, a second year student on the BA Linguistics and Language shares insights from the lecture given by Martha C. Pennington on 6th June.

Professor Martha C. Pennington, PhD Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania, has written numerous books on various topics including Linguistics. On the 6th of June she gave a lecture at Birkbeck, where she shared her insights on the issues with current theories of L1 (first language) and L2 (second language) acquisition, and what the future for these theories may hold. She started by explaining the idea of a conceptual binarity, when something is perceived as falling into one of two extremes. She explained that L1 and L2  learning, implicit (learning while unaware) and explicit (learning while aware, intentionally), and language learning and language use serve as examples of conceptual binarities that have manifested within the field of Language Acquisition, implying that these ideas are false or overdrawn dichotomies.

Professor Pennington went on to explain her doubts of the critical period and related hypotheses. The idea of a critical period comes in many forms, but it fundamentally describes points after which the ability to learn language, or certain aspects of language, becomes limited. She pointed out problems with the evidence that has been presented, for example that the left-hemisphere lateralisation of language (the idea that language is local to the left-hemisphere) has been exaggerated and is not universal. Furthermore, she explained that some aspects of language seem to have earlier critical periods than puberty, for which there is a lack of a sufficient explanation of a biological mechanism or evolutionary benefit for those earlier critical (or so-called “sensitive”) periods, and discussions about this have been sparse.

This led to her next point, that some researchers see the evidence as indicating that there is no biological mechanism for critical periods, therefore, indicating there are no fundamental differences between L1 and L2 learning. Professor Pennington pointed out that the limitations of L2 performance can be explained by factors such as the L1 of an individual affecting their perception and attention, which could block future learning. She also pointed out that as children are exposed to writing and many begin to read fairly early literacy may be a factor, and that more research should be done to compare literate and non-literate individuals in terms of how they learn language. Also, while L1 is typically associated with implicit learning and L2 with explicit learning, she suggested that explicit learning still depends on implicit processes, which would further support the idea that L1 and L2 learning are more similar than people seem to think.

Finally, Professor Pennington discussed language use and language learning. She explained that even those who are fully proficient in a language continue to learn and change the way they use language. As even native-speakers are exposed to new vocabulary, they continue to adapt their language use, so language use influences language learning. They are not entirely independent from each other.

The talk was fascinating and raised many questions about the current consensus surrounding language acquisition. Professor Pennington argued that theories which may have originally been suitable are often adapted and expanded to remain compatible with new research and ideas, sometimes up to the point that they become overly complicated and arbitrary. It may be the case that some language acquisition theories have reached this point. While no one can know exactly what the future holds, it is clear that research will lead the way for new ideas, and that existing theories are bound to change.


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Arts Week 2019: Silencing the Virus

Claire Frampton, an alumna of MA Arts Policy and Management, Birkbeck College, 2013 shares her experience attending the immersive performance presented by Lily Hunter-Green, artist in residence, School of Arts, Birkbeck.

The work Silencing the Virus explored the threat to bees from diseases, specifically Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, in an immersive interactive digital experience that took place in Birkbeck School of Arts. I walked into the gallery and saw white jumpsuits hanging from the ceiling, with some headwear that resembled beekeepers’ hat and veil.  This introduced themes of interaction with nature, the jumpsuits created an atmosphere of an environment in which humans would need protection from infection. On the floor yellow and black tape marked out an area where the main action of the interactive performance took place, like a quarantine area. An information panel on the wall set out the definitions of this project; ´infectious composition, contagious performance, ground breaking performance, eusocial experimentˋ.  It described the context of the installation as evoking ´the disturbing dystopian world of a beehive under attackˋ from the virus, ´which is decimating honeybee colonies globallyˋ. A video on a small screen part of the installation explained in more depth, and included footage of bees illustrating the subject of the project.

In the first part of the presentation, audience members watched a film on a big screen which described the experience of artist Lily Hunter-Green working on her practice at a residency at The Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge where she was invited to work with molecular biologists. The video also included an explanation of the specific virus and the threat to the bee community by molecular biologist Dr. Eyal Maori. The tone of the video expressed the serious nature of the inspiration of the piece.

In the next part of the piece, audience members were given headphones and experienced music composed by Lily Hunter-Green and violinist Tom Moore, like a silent disco experience. Hunter-Green informed us that one participant, patient zero, infected the others. Participants held devices which vibrated, mimicking the sounds of bees, a small screen part of the device displayed computer code, highlighting the digital element. Hunter-Green had conducted experiments working with a computer scienctist who had written a code which infected music with a virus. The sound involved instruments playing music, and the introduction of buzzing sounds which took over. Participants walked around each other in the confined space, a bit like bees in a hive, having time to contemplate the installations. I was excited by innovation and how the project combined elements of nature and computerised music. The installation also included an interactive sound sculpture that demonstrated the spread of a virus through a beehive with changes of green and red lights.

The different elements of this work demonstrated exploration of creativity surrounding this topic and raised awareness of the threat to bees through disease. After the experience I felt I had better knowledge of this topic and a memorable experience. Listening to music on headphones had similarities to everyday experiences in the contemporary world, the infection element an interesting twist on the usual modern experience of listening to digitally stored music.

More information is available on Hunter-Greens‘ website, which describes phases in history of her project.


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Women in computer science: a “problem-solving” approach

Dr Beate Grawemeyer from the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab and Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, reports on the research seminar led by Professor Niki Trigoni from the University of Oxford.

(L-R) Professor Niki Trigoni, Professor Alex Poulovassilis and Dr Tingting Han

Does a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) pose specific challenges for women? What are some of the challenges facing women pursuing a Computer Science career in the University sector? These questions were among those explored with Dr Niki Trigoni, Professor of Computing Science at the University of Oxford, who visited Birkbeck on 28 June 2018 to deliver a presentation on her current research and to discuss the challenges facing women in STEM. The event took the form of a conversation between Professor Trigoni and Dr Tingting Han, Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems.

Professor Trigoni began with a research presentation on the topic of context inference and control in artificial intelligence (AI)-driven cyber-physical systems. She explained how by analysing the data gathered from ubiquitous sensors, it is possible to make sense of a human activity in built environments such as homes, hospitals, and construction sites. She discussed how AI and Machine Learning techniques can be used for integrating different kinds of sensor data, inferring human activities, and reacting to human preferences. She also highlighted how crowdsourcing can be used to generate additional high-value data, including for inferring a map of an unfamiliar building from the pathways that humans follow through it. Professor Trigoni concluded with a discussion of the privacy concerns around gathering and processing raw sensor data.

Her presentation was followed by lunch and a networking opportunity for the attendees, and a discussion with Dr Han. During the discussion, Professor Trigoni talked about her early passion for computer science, which stemmed from her interest in mathematics and its real-world applications.  She discussed early positive experiences of studying mathematics and working in the IT sector in Greece. After this, she completed a PhD in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge, then a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University, and she took up an academic post at Birkbeck.

Professor Trigoni discussed reasons why there may be a lack of women in computer science in the UK, including girls’ experiences in schools and within their families.  She noted the possible implicit negative impressions relating to women’s careers in computing but observed that these may now be reducing as some progress has been made as more women in the UK are entering the field of computer science. However, it is important that encouraging women’s careers should not be at the disadvantage of male computer scientists. Instead, computer science can be made more interesting for women by, for example, relating it to subjects where women are well-represented, such as biology.

To attract more women to the discipline, the current focus on “coding” should instead be replaced by a focus on “problem-solving”, which is a much more gender-balanced skill learnt in school. There should also be a general raising of the status of engineering and computer science as career paths, including higher relative salaries, as is the case in other European countries. Finally, in terms of pursuing a career as a woman in academia, she highlighted the importance of travelling and networking for career development and progression and the fact that this may be challenging for women if they have a family with young children.

In a working environment where there are more women, particularly senior women, who have gone through similar experiences themselves, there may be more understanding and support available.

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Categorising ‘Public Engagement’

Mary-Clare Hallsworth, Public Engagement Manager at Birkbeck, University of London outlines the College’s approach to categorising public engagement for the inaugural Public Engagement Awards.

Recently at Birkbeck we ran our first ever Public Engagement Awards. The aim of the awards is to showcase and reward the great public engagement with research that goes on in our College. Thankfully there is plenty of it to reward so we didn’t need to overcome that particular challenge but instead we needed to make sure that the breadth of engagement practice was well represented and colleagues felt there was a category that they could apply for.  A lot of thought went into what our award categories should look like. There is quite a variety of models out there for categorising and dividing up public engagement. You can group PE by who is doing it, who it is being ‘done to’ (!), who is involved, reasons for the engagement or methods used – this is even before we start arguing over the nuances of the various definitions for public engagement (what should/shouldn’t be included?!).

Personally I like to avoid defining public engagement as a ‘thing’ altogether and prefer to think of it as an ethos – an underpinning way of conducting yourself and your research. This breaks the need to ask things like ‘does a blog count as public engagement?’; the answer to this is always ‘depends how you use it’, which is an irritating response. Instead, thinking of public engagement as an ethos enables us to think about the plethora of methods available as tools and choose the ones most useful and relevant to both the research and the community involved.

Bearing in mind then that we are trying to promote an ethos, not a tick-box ‘thing’ we looked at options for dividing the categories for our awards: by School/Department, by career level, by levels of involvement/influence in PE, and by engagement ‘type’.  We decided that, however we divided them, the final categories should adhere to certain principles. They must:

  • Reward the engagement work and not just individuals
  • Allow academics and researchers from every School/subject area to be able to apply
  • Be open and fair to all career levels
  • Showcase and reward the full spectrum of engagement activity at Birkbeck

To narrow down potential categories we looked at awards run by Queen Mary, University of London, University College London (check out their experiences!),  Oxford University and, of course, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). We also looked at definitions of public engagement from RCUK, the Wellcome Trust, NCCPE and various categorisation of public engagement within reports, the most enlightening being:  Reviewing Public Engagement in REF 2014 by NCCPE, The State of Play Report commissioned by Wellcome and RCUK and the Factors Affecting Public Engagement by UK researchers.

Because the language we use about what we really mean by public engagement is not universal and differs significantly by discipline we also had to take into account the language we used to describe each of the categories (full category descriptions at the end).

After all this we ended up with the following categories:

  • PhD and Early Career Researcher Award
  • Communicating Research
  • Collaboration
  • Engaged Practice
  • Transforming Culture or Public Life

On the whole I think these worked well. We did receive a good number and range of applications from all the Schools in the College for all of the categories. There were noticeable gaps though. Applications to the Engaged Practice category were a little low for my liking. Additionally, pockets of some departments were completely missed. Our Geography department, for example, does some great work which I would put firmly in the ‘Engaged Practice’ category but there was not a geographer in sight. We clearly didn’t get the messaging and language right for them – definitely something to think about for next year!

Categories – Full Descriptions

  • Communicating Research

This award recognised excellence in communicating research projects and ideas through stimulating or innovative activities. These activities aimed to: Inspire wonder, curiosity and learning; challenge conventional wisdom or provoke scrutiny and debate amongst their targeted publics. Classic forms of communication may have been used for this work including talks, workshops and media work (such as contributing or creating TV, film or radio content, appearing as a ‘talking head’ in factual programming), as well as publishing articles in non-scholarly outlets. Innovative use of websites and social media for communication were also considered in this category.

Applicants were asked to note the distinction between activities which are ‘publicly available’ as opposed to communicating to the public. Publicly available activities are scholarly activities such as conference talks or lectures that are made available to the public rather than those specifically designed for a particular non-academic audience. Publicly available activities did not fall within the remit of these awards.

  • Collaboration

This award recognised engagement based on an active collaboration and a two-way relationship with an external partner(s). Collaborators might have included museums, charities, schools, individuals and artists, arts organisations or social enterprises who work with the researcher/s to reach their public/s. Collaborations in this category often resulted in the development of new pieces of work, exhibitions, performances or resources. This type of engagement usually looks to prompt new ideas and ways of working, build skills/ knowledge on both sides of the collaboration, whilst providing publics with access to research and opportunities to get involved.

With these types of projects the true engagement could be said to be with the collaborator rather than the public, although the outputs of the collaboration often add an additional level of engagement with a wider public.

  • Engaged Practice

This award recognised research that has participation and involvement of publics as a core approach to the creation of research. Projects in this category could be described as community engagement, participatory research, co-production of knowledge or socially engaged practice amongst many labels. This type of research works directly with a community of place/interest in order to: empower the subjects of the research; use dialogue and deliberation to influence the research; build networks; develop skills or improve the health and well-being of those involved. This form of engagement often takes years to establish relationships enabling publics to share their knowledge and expertise and can often contribute to issue-based awareness, support activism or take a ground up approach to policy change.

  • Transforming Culture or Public Life

This award recognised research engagement activities which aim to stimulate change within our culture and society. These projects tend to work ‘behind the scenes’ to influence organisations, professional groups or policy makers. Activities were designed to: inform decision making; encouraged scrutiny and debate; galvanise change and influence the behaviours and practices of organisations or groups who work in the public realm.

Common strategies for affecting influence might include: commissioning artworks/film/theatre; input/creation of think-tanks and advisory groups; workshops for professional groups and policy makers; collaborating with businesses/communities to provide a service or influence a change in practice.

Note: Collaborations within this category tend not to produce single new pieces of work but rather change the way in which a group/organisation approaches work.

  • PhD and Early Career Researcher Award

The Early Career Award recognised the public engagement work of doctoral students or early career researchers (ie Post-Docs in their first two years in post). This included projects where the applicant has spearheaded a project or contributed significantly to a larger project.

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