Harriet Bowden, assistant professor in Spanish, discussed the cognitive processes that allow people to learn a second language at Friday’s UT Science Forum.
Bowden started learning Spanish in school as a young child and continued to stick with it. She spent a semester of college in Spain studying abroad. Now she studies how she and others manage to learn a non-native language, such as a native English speaker learning Spanish, and focuses on the psychology and neurology behind language acquisition.
“Learning about the study of acquisition can tell us how the brain works with a second language and how it can be useful to certain parts of the brain,” Bowden said.
Bowden explained how to distinguish the differences between implicit and explicit learning. Learning a language requires passive exposure to those who already speak the language, or implicit learning, as well as memorization and active, or explicit learning.
“There is hope in learning a second language, and the brain can learn to receive it like a native,” Bowden said. “You just have to work at it.”
Lydia Barry, a graduate teaching associate and graduate in Spanish, understands Bowden’s emphasis on the importance of comprehending how the brain learns language in order to teach a foreign language.
“This forum made it very clear that you can learn a second language efficiently,” Barry said. “You can become a native-like speaker. With the added lecture notes, I understand now that you can use different memory systems to do so.”
Bowden differentiated declarative and procedural thought processes and each process’ contribution to learning a language. Declarative memory is the recollection of facts or data that a person repeatedly uses. Procedural memory is the recollection of patterns or routines with which a person has become familiar.
She presented research that said left- and right-handed people learn a second language differently and ended Friday’s presentation with the argument that if researchers use neuroscience to investigate second-language acquisition, scientists will be able to better understand how to teach the language more proficiently.
Mark Littmann, head of the forum and professor in journalism and electronic media, said he is pleased with the lineup for the fall 2009 speakers and the turnout for Bowden’s lecture.
“Students should definitely come out and enjoy these interesting topics,” Littmann said. “They are free for the public, and you are able to gain knowledge in fields you did not know before.”