The Problem of Losing a Language

By: Ava Brimley

Have you ever wondered why you cannot remember any of that Spanish or French you took in high school? Gabby Langella has decided to look into this very question. A senior at the Fordham College of Rose Hill, Langella intends to do research on language attrition–the loss of language proficiency. Langella is an Integrative Neuroscience major with a minor in Spanish and plans to go to medical school to study neurology after she graduates. She joined the linguistics lab led by Dr. Sarah Grey in the spring of 2020, just before the global pandemic hit the United States. Dr. Sarah Grey is an assistant professor of Spanish and Linguistics at Fordham and the principal investigator of the EEG lab for language and multilingualism research. She specializes in psycholinguistics, applied linguistics, and bilingualism. 

Langella’s interest in this research was prompted by her curiosity over her grandmother’s loss of her second language, French. She noticed in her studies on language attrition that most research focuses on the loss of a first language rather than the attrition of a second language, despite the greater frequency of L2 attrition. This significant gap in language attrition research led Langella to develop her own study in Dr. Grey’s lab. For her proposed study, Langella will collect Event-Related Potential (ERP; brainwave) data during a Spanish sentence reading task with research participants. She hopes to use two groups, both of which will consist of adult learners who formerly studied Spanish but have experienced at least a two-year period of non-exposure, with no formal Spanish study in college. The groups will be separated into a control group that has no re-exposure to Spanish before the task and an experimental re-exposure group that will be exposed to written and oral Spanish before the Spanish reading task. 

To measure the brain activity of each participant, Langella will need an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine. Langella described the technology as a net of electrodes that surrounds the head and records electrical activity in the brain. Oftentimes, an EEG is used to detect and investigate epilepsy, but Langella will use it to measure cognitive functions like attention or distraction as the participants are exposed to Spanish sentences. Langella’s hypothesis is that the re-exposure group will show increased neural sensitivity to Spanish grammar information in the form of P600 ERP responses tracked with the EEG. Langella hopes that this study will further our understanding of the relationship between re-exposure and second language processing. 

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions on meeting times and locations, Langella’s research has been delayed. She has only very recently gained approval to recruit participants for her study. The importance of Langella’s research cannot be understated, and for this reason, one can hope she will be able to complete it before another year goes by. While Langella’s situation is an unfortunate one, it is not unique in the world of undergraduate research. Other undergraduate researchers have undoubtedly been affected by the restrictions of the pandemic. With luck, students like Gabby Langella will continue to conduct influential research despite any obstacles they may face.

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