Michael Frank on Multitasking in Language Learning

By L. Jasmine Dobbs-Marsh, Assistant Teacher

Multitasking often has drawbacks: Gains in efficiency may be canceled out by losses in accuracy, comprehension or production quality. Language learning, however, is definitely “a time when multitasking is good,” says professor Michael Frank, PhD, a recent addition to the Stanford faculty. This past fall, Stanford and Bing Nursery School welcomed Frank, a new assistant professor in the Department of Psychology (with a focus on developmental psychology) and a new faculty sponsor of research here at Bing. Frank’s particular focus is the development of language, and he shared his research on early language learning with the Bing staff during a development day on October 11, 2010.

Frank presented two common models for word learning: associative learning and intentional learning. According to the associative model, young language-learning brains count how many times a word and an object co-occur, and the pairings with the “highest counts are the ones that win.” Intentional learning gives the language-learning brain a bigger job than mere statistical calculation—suggesting that the young language learner draws data from the intentions of the speaker as well as the words and their context. Intentional language learners may learn from experience that “Mom [or Dad] only talks about some things” and that “Some words don’t talk about things [or] refer to the real world” at all; this intentional information may be gleaned from a gaze, gestures and other non-verbal forms of communication. Frank argued that language development combines both associative and intentional learning. He stated that young children learning language multitask—counting associations and considering intentions at the same time-which allows them to gain language abilities with remarkable speed and accuracy. So, in language learning, multitasking provides a powerful advantage.

How does multitasking play out in the process of learning language? “A short, ambiguous message can convey a lot to a perceptive listener” through contextual information, said Frank. Linguistic philosopher H. Paul Grice developed a set of rules for normal conversation, stating that individuals making normal conversation will always try to be truthful, informative, relevant and unambiguous. If young language learners assume that this is true of the speech of their parents and other caregivers, they can exploit these assumptions to gain as much information as possible from the non-verbal and physical context surrounding spoken words. For example, if an adult uses a new adjective to describe one object in a set of several objects,

the child can use the adult’s gaze to tell which object is relevant to the spoken words and compare this object to the others in the set to see how it differs from them (assuming that the new adjective is informative in a way that will allow the child to discriminate in comparison to the other objects). In a previous study of three- to four-year-olds, Frank and his colleagues have found preliminary evidence that children do assume speakers to be informative, even when they use novel words. This set of assumptions about language and its context is what allows children to multitask, providing the background for Frank’s theory of how multitasking affects language learning.

Frank suggested that children learn language through a dual process that relies on using words to figure out a person’s intention, and on knowledge of how people think to figure out the meaning of new words. Associative and intentional learning both play a role as children learn language through hearing combinations of familiar and novel words and from non-verbal indications of intention. This is a complex and circular process, as understanding words helps learn intentions and understanding intentions helps learn words. To dissect this process, Frank seeks to tease out how accompanying non-verbal information (touch, gaze, gestures, pointing) and the structure of parent-child and other adult-child verbal interactions play out. He seeks to understand how interaction prepares children to learn new words, and how familiar words help them get their bearings. Familiar words can give a meaningful context that helps language learners determine whether a novel word is a noun present in the current environment, a verb about what is happening or some other kind of word entirely.

In Frank’s current studies he presents children with “pimwits” (fictional worm-like creatures made with craft sticks that have varying skin textures and patterns), uses novel adjectives to describe them and observes whether children associate the new words with skin or with pattern. Above all, Frank’s approach to language learning is based on the “perspective of interaction mattering,” the perspective—backed up by extensive evidence—that children learn not only from the auditory stimulation provided by speech but also from the interactive process of conversation with other human beings.