Overturning the Established Theory of Psycholinguistics
Choi Ji-yeon (Post-doctoral researcher of Hanyang Phonetics and Psycholinguistics Lab at the Institute of Performative Humanities)
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Imagine a newborn baby who can barely open her eyes learning a language. It may sound intriguing yet preposterous. It was a widely-accepted view in the psycholinguistic field that an infant should be at least more than 12 months in order to acquire certain linguistic abilities. However, Choi Ji-yeon, a post-doctoral researcher of Hanyang Phonetics and Psycholinguistics Lab at the Institute of Performative Humanities, has debunked this convention through her study - Early development of abstract language knowledge: Evidence from perception–production transfer of birth-language memory.
Babies can remember their birth language
When Choi was contemplating about a research topic for her doctoral degree at Max Planck, a German scientific research center, she decided to pursue a theme in accordance with her interest. It was language acquisition of infants, specifically, a baby’s ability to remember its birth language. In order to proceed with her research, she went to the Netherlands where the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is located.
She first gathered a group of 29 people who were adopted from South Korea to the Netherlands between the ages of 3 months to 70 months. This experimental group averaged at 32 years of age, had never learned or spoken Korean in their lifetime after adoption and used Dutch as their native tongue. Another control group was a group of native Dutch people who never had any contact with the Korean language during their infancy. To make sure to establish the experimental conditions, Choi, through interviews, gave assurance that the adopted group had no interest in learning Korean but had great interest in contributing to scientific development.
In the experiment, both groups were trained through computer programs and voice recorders to learn Korean phonemes 14 times. Korean contains three phonemes- lax, aspirated, and tense consonants, which is numerous, compared to Dutch. The letters used for pronunciation training were vowels ㅏ,ㅐ,ㅣ,ㅗ,ㅜ (a, e, I, o, u) and the second syllables 라, 해, 미, 조, 수 (la, hae, mi, jo, su). Together, five vowels, five second syllables, and three consonants created a total of 75 Korean pronunciation sounds which both experimental and control groups were drilled on.
After 14 training sessions, the adopted group’s production (ability to distinguish speech perception and produce a language) scores improved much more than the control group’s scores. In addition, the experimental group’s speed of score improvement correlated with the training speed. “What was more impressive was that half of the experimental group were adopted when they were linguistic, which was at 17 months or older, while the other half were adopted before six months old, when they were prelinguistic,” said Choi.
However, this difference showed no distinction in the ability and speed of Korean acquisition process. This proves that their Korean language ability shifted from perception (ability to interpret a language) to production and that birth language is concrete in nature rather than by nurture. “This is called the re-learning benefit, the main issue of my study,” mentioned Choi.
The lonely adventure
Despite the successful results, the beginning of this study was a gamble for Choi. “Everyone tried to dissuade me from this research because it was like being on an adventure,” remembers Choi. If such a topic does not have a dramatic result, then it would meant nothing but a repetition of a norm for Choi. However, she had firm faith that she had to pursue what she thought was right. “Right after I finished my research topic presentation at Max Planck, I was psychologically pressured to succeed on this study,” recalled Choi.
Another barrier that loomed ahead of her adventure was the difficulty of personalization for the experimental and control groups. “I had to visit each subject population to train them in Korean while in the Netherlands. Travelling around the whole country by train and on foot all day long was a rather daunting experience for me,” said Choi. After Choi visited every single subject group and completed the research, she delivered the recorded results to Hanyang University. She then gathered Hanyangian students to distinguish the recorded pronunciation between native Koreans, adopted Dutch, and native Dutch. As a result, Choi succeeded in clinching the psycholinguistic astonishment in her hand.
Some question the result stating that the adoptees could have had more interest in Korea. Another doubt is that the experimental group might have had a significantly high linguistic ability. “However, I could refute that by proving that the experimental group did not have any linguistic progress in other languages,” said Choi.
Choi emphasizes the importance of patience when doing research. "Never underestimate prior knowledge of the field. We can only advance when we have a basis in former researches and experiments,” states Choi. Choi is currently working on contributing a paper on linguistic perception and its generalization.
Kim Ju-hyun firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Moon Ha-na
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