Cross-language interactions during novel word learning: The contribution of form similarity and participants’ characteristics

Thematic Section: Modulators of cross-language influences in learning and processing

cross-language influence, transfer, immersion, morpho-syntax, lexicon

Mariana Elias, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
Tamar Degani, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel

The current study sets out to examine cross-language influences in the lexical domain, by testing how form-meaning overlap between learners first-language (L1) and the to-be-learned language influence learning. In particular, the study examined whether false-cognates, which overlap in form but not meaning across languages, are easier to learn due to form overlap, or harder to learn due to meaning competition, compared to unambiguous control and cognate words. The study further tested how individual differences in phonological short-term memory and language proficiency modulate vocabulary learning in general, and the susceptibility to cross-language influences due to form overlap. Fifty-four native Hebrew speakers learned 14 cognates, 14 false-cognates, and 28 control Arabic words in one session, such that each Arabic word was presented auditorily along with its Hebrew (L1) translation. Learning trials incorporated retrieval attempts to increase learning, followed by translation recognition test trials. Retrieval and recognition blocks were repeated until an 80% accuracy criterion was reached or up to 4 cycles, such that each word was presented up to 5 times during the experiment.
Results show a robust cognate advantage in learning, in that learning criterion was reached first for these cognate items, and cognates were recognized more quickly and accurately in the recognition test. At the same time, there was no overall difference in learning false-cognates relative to controls, suggesting that form facilitation and meaning competition cancelled each other out. Interestingly, individuals with higher phonological short-term memory, or those with lower Hebrew verbal-fluency, did exhibit a false-cognate learning-advantage, suggesting that these characteristics increased susceptibility to facilitation due to form-overlap. The findings reveal how individual differences modulate cross-language influences during initial stages of vocabulary learning and highlight the importance of jointly considering item-based and learner-based characteristics.