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Review of  Cognition and Language Learning


Reviewer: Marta Aleksandra Gasiorowska
Book Title: Cognition and Language Learning
Book Author: Sadia Belkhir
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 31.2365

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SUMMARY

‘Cognition and Language Learning’ is a compilation of papers by nine different authors which have been assembled into a single volume by an editor (also a contributor), Sadia Belkhir. Contributors to this volume include PhD researchers, early-career academics and lecturers. The collection grew out of a symposium held under the same title in February 2019 at Mouloud Mammeri University (Algeria). It is aimed as an exploration of ‘how cognitive aspects featuring language are relevant to the field of educational linguistics’ (p.10). A brief review of the content page reveals a wide variety of concepts and phenomena dealt with in this volume, promising it to be an insightful read.

The first chapter provides an introduction by the editor, Sadia Belkhir, in which she briefly maps out the connection between cognition and language in reference to some of the prominent theories in the field of linguistic, psychology and second language acquisition (SLA). She also traces how language learning approaches have evolved over the last couple of decades from behavioural to cognitive. The author makes an attempt at providing readers with a brief overview of the synergies emerging between the two research areas as a result of work undertaken by scholars. A handful of objectives for this volume have been set out in a short paragraph with the main ones being to fill the gap for ‘innovative research that examines the interrelationship between cognition and the process of language learning’ and offer a ‘multidisciplinary perspective’ (p.5). The rest of this introductory chapter is a panorama of the topics that are subsequently dealt with in the volume.

In Chapter 2 Kamila Ammour sets out to shed light on metacognitive awareness and strategies deployed during reading of narrative texts by learners of English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Seventy five participants recruited from the student population at Mouloud Mammeri University took part in the study. Data was elicited from the participants with the help of a short questionnaire adapted from the Metacognitive Awareness of Reading Strategies Inventory (Mokhtari & Reichard 2000). Data analysis carried out by Ammour revealed a number of trends. Planning strategies such as setting a goal before reading a narrative text and asking oneself questions about the text format before reading were some of the most widely reported strategies. As Ammour points out these strategies are associated with the ‘pre-reading’ stage and indicate a high level of metacognitive awareness arising during readers’ first encounter with the text. On the other hand, strategies deployed and reported by the participants mid-reading task are limited to trying to guess the meaning of an unknown word from context, slowing down and focussing attention on important information when encountered in text. According to Ammour the so-called ‘word-attack’ strategies are symptomatic of a lack of metacognitive awareness amongst participants, which prevents them from critically engaging with the text. This reported variance in terms of EFL readers’ metacognitive engagement with narrative texts during a reading task carries into the post-reading stage. Ammour stipulates that this reluctance to deploy complex metacognitive strategies during and post-reading can be attributed to their perceived difficulty, leading students to refrain from trying and testing them out. In an environment where EFL reading is mainly perceived as a means to an end and is framed as a decoding process rather than an interpretative one, the task of developing metacognitive awareness in readers is immensely complicated. Ammour’s findings capture some of the complexities associated with EFL reading from a learner perspective; they also pose a challenge for education practitioners encouraging them to rethink and develop methodologies for teaching metacognitive reading strategies.

In Chapter 3, Fatima Zhora Chalal presents the results of her investigation into vocabulary attrition among a group of multilingual adults with L4 English. Her experimental design is informed by studies undertaken by De Bot and Martens (2015) which sought to test the so-called ‘savings paradigm’ (Nelson 1978). In order to test the existence and accessibility of lexical knowledge twenty university students with a matching language profile (L1 Kabyle, L2 Arabic, L3 French, L4 English) were recruited and underwent the same test procedure. The experiment made use of English word lists including (i) high-frequency items which participants would have encountered during their English studies at middle school and (ii) low-frequency words compiled from a dictionary. The procedure involved relearning high-frequency words and learning low-frequency words followed by a recall test administered an hour and a half later. Chalal reports that the participants successfully recalled 74% of high-frequency vocabulary items with 100% accuracy eventually achieved after a single trial. These figures are in stark contrast to the rate of the acquisition attempts for the low-frequency words nearing as many as 6 and 7. Chalal explains this effortless relearning of high-frequency items compared to low-frequency items by crediting participants’ residual knowledge. These findings are said to be of relevance to those responsible for providing efficient solutions to maintain languages and to facilitate language retention. In her closing remarks the author reflects on some of the limitations of the study, such as short temporal proximity between learning and testing. The need to broaden the scope of investigation into foreign language attrition to include other aspects of language has also been highlighted.

Chapter 4 deals with the effects of the Metaphor Identification Procedure (MIP) (Steen et al 2010) on a small group of university students. Sadia Belkhir aims to test a hypothesis pertaining to the utility of MIP when it comes to developing EFL learners’ ability to identify metaphors in written discourse. A total of nine students with a varying degree of proficiency in EFL and knowledge of metaphor as a stylistic tool took part in the experiment. While all participants were required to identify metaphors in samples of academic text, those with little or no knowledge of metaphor were subject to a three-step experimental procedure compared to a single-step procedure for two participants who had some prior knowledge of metaphor in the EFL context. The first metaphor identification task was administered to all participants in order to capture their present state of knowledge of the concept. The principal difference between the two groups was that the former were asked to familiarise themselves with the content of an article on MIP (step 2) and were given a formal lesson on metaphor (step 3) in advance of undertaking the second and third metaphor identification task. In addition a series of control questions were posed to this group of participants querying their knowledge of metaphors, their justification for their selection of metaphors in the excerpts, their comprehension of the content of the article on the MIP and their understanding of the formal lesson. The results revealed that the subjects’ ability to identify metaphors had mostly increased once step 2 and step 3 were implemented. A reversed trend was confirmed in the case of two participants whose scores in step 3 were lower compared to scores achieved in step 2. Also it is noteworthy that the highest score achieved across all the experimental stages was relatively low (40.95%). The author stipulates around the possible explanations; however, given the modest scale of this study, it is apparent that a significant amount of research must be undertaken in order to ascertain the benefits (if any) of deploying MIP as a pedagogical aid in an EFL classroom.

Chapter 5 contains a contribution by Georgios P. Georgiou aimed at uncovering the perceptual patterns of Arabic adult speakers with regard to the vowels of L2 Cypriot Greek. A brief literature review reveals gaps in knowledge of speech perception of Greek as an L2, which the author attempts to address in his investigation. The study employs a theoretical framework of the Perceptual Assimilation Model (Best 1994) in order to predict the attunement of L2 Cypriot Greek learners. Having mapped out the differences between the Greek vowel system and Egyptian Arabic, Georgiou details the experimental procedure. Fifteen native speakers of Egyptian Arabic took part in a vowel assimilation test and a vowel contrast discrimination test. A control group made up of fifteen native speakers of Cypriot Greek took part in the discriminatory test only. In the assimilation test L2 speakers were required to match aurally presented Greek words featuring the target vowels with vowels in Egyptian Arabic. The discrimination test implemented an AXB matching procedure requiring the participants to judge aurally presented triads of Greek words containing the target vowels. The results revealed that several Greek vowels were assimilated into the Arabic phonological categories, with stress considered here an important modifier of speech perception. The discriminatory task revealed traces of phonological form transfer from L1 to L2. Georgiou interprets these results as symptomatic of an attempt by the learners to assimilate the Greek vowels into the Arabic phonological system. What is more, owing to phonemic differences between certain vowels in Arabic and Greek, discrimination between and production of /i/- /e/ and /o/ - /u/ was shown to pose a challenge to Arabic learners of Greek – results which the author claims are consistent with other studies. Georgiou stipulates that this revealed difficulty is likely to extend to learning other languages including English--a claim which is yet to be verified.

In Chapter 6 Amel Benaissa presents the results of an investigation into the efficacy of digital flashcards and online Quizlets in a foreign language classroom. Her research is limited to passive vocabulary (receptive knowledge), control active vocabulary and free active vocabulary (productive knowledge). Thirty participants recruited among the student population were split evenly into a control and experimental group. Both groups were subjected to the same pre-test procedure in which their vocabulary knowledge was tested. Subsequently each group was tasked with learning fifteen new vocabulary items. The control group availed of standard fill-in-the-blanks type of exercises and multiple choice questions while the experimental group had access to the online Quizlets programme. The post-test procedure for eliciting control passive and active vocabulary gains matched the pre-test procedure. Participants’ free active vocabulary was tested separately with the help of a short composition task. The results revealed that the experimental group significantly outperformed the control group when it comes to passive vocabulary and active control vocabulary gains, indicating a positive effect of online Quizlets. No significant difference was recorded between the two groups’ performance in the free active vocabulary post-test. Benaissa stipulates that the latter may be due to the fact that Quizlets, although visually attractive and stimulating, fall short of encouraging students to negotiate the meaning and use of words in a real-life context. Conclusions drawn by the researcher are in keeping with developments in the field of computer-assisted language learning (CALL). Benaissa’s findings offer foreign language teachers and students a glimpse into the benefits of exploring online tools such as Quizlet to support vocabulary acquisition.

Chapter 7 contains insights from an investigative study undertaken by Nora Achili aimed at gauging a better understanding of Algerian EFL learners’ perceptions of success and failure. The author explores her participants’ intrinsic and extrinsic reasons which they attribute to their academic performance with the help of a causal attribution questionnaire. Achili’s study is underpinned by attribution theory (Weiner 1986). Sixty two master’s degree students advanced in their EFL studies (C1) completed a twenty-eight question long questionnaire targeting their perceptions of internal and external causes associated with academic success and failure. Result analysis revealed that the four highest rated causal attributions associated with success were internal and included one’s interest, regular class attendance, commitment, revision and preparation. The results were less clear-cut when it came to students’ perceptions of causal attributions connected to academic failure with both internal and external factors equally bearing on participants’ perceptions. Controllability of causal attributions, that is one’s abilities, task difficulty, effort and luck, were also probed, revealing the former and the latter as the least controllable. Having framed motivation as a dynamic and constructive process Achili concludes that attribution training is needed in order to influence learners’ perceptions be they uncontrollable and unstable internal or external reasons. Techniques and teaching strategies aimed at motivating learners are put forward as a way of intervening and influencing learners’ perceptions, particularly those likely to impede their learning.

In Chapter 8 Katia Berbar deals with the topic of anxiety as it is experienced by foreign language learners. She builds on the existing body of extensive research into the role of affective and emotional variables. In her study Berbar employs a Likert questionnaire designed to measure the levels of anxiety experienced by her participants at different stages of foreign language learning, namely input, processing and output. A group of sixty five first year university students were required to provide their responses to eighteen questions pertaining to EFL learning. Result analysis revealed that over 80% of respondents experienced anxiety at the input stage regardless of whether information was presented aurally i.e. a listening task, orally i.e. teacher instructions or in a written format. The source of self-reported anxiety identified at the processing stage had largely to do with participants’ concerns about time available to them to attend to new language information. These concerns were further exacerbated by unfamiliar topics and awareness of gaps in one’s lexical/grammatical knowledge. The output stage is marked by an increase in physiological anxiety reaction with 73% of respondents reporting a rapid heartbeat when asked to provide oral answers to questions or deliver classroom presentations. Berbar asserts that the main cause of anxiety, as reported by this group of participants, relates to the comprehension of language input which negatively affected their EFL learning. On foot of these findings Berbar encourages foreign language teachers to take the necessary measures to mitigate the negative effects of anxiety on students' learning. This is noting that the present study was not free from limitations and acknowledging that further research into the impact of anxiety on foreign language learners is required.

In Chapter 9 Hanane Ait Hamouda maps out her investigation into students’ perceptions of the use of code switching in EFL classes. Compiled by Hamouda, the literature review reveals that code-switching has been at the heart of many debates, revolving mainly around its perceived utility and effectiveness as argued by some and strongly contested by others. This research is guided by four hypotheses which predict EFL university students’ orientation towards the use of code-switching in class and whether or not they consider it as an obstacle in the cognitive process of English production. Data was gathered from twenty seven second year MA students at Mouloud Mammeri University using a questionnaire containing both closed and open-ended questions. The results revealed that code-switching was widely present and practiced in EFL classrooms by educators and students alike. The majority of respondents (77.8%) reported that code-switching had no negative effects which they thought would impede or compromise their learning. Similarly a large proportion of the participants (66.7%) reported no negative effects of code-switching on their language production both spoken and written. Hamouda concludes that code-switching is perceived positively by the student sample. She frames code-switching as performing a facilitatory role across all stages of language production including conceptualisation, formulation, articulation and self-regulation. In summary, Hamouda’s study joins other empirical studies which advocate positive aspects of using code-switching in foreign language classrooms.

EVALUATION

The purpose of this volume as set out in the introductory Chapter 1 was to look at the relationship between language and cognition from ‘a purely educational perspective’ (p.2). The approach adopted in this volume is a basic one; it is premised on testing, refining and modifying existing theories.

This edited collection contributes fresh data to the body of research pertaining to a range of phenomena at the intersection of cognition and foreign language learning. Especially noteworthy is its inclusion of topics such as metacognitive awareness, learners’ perceptions and attitudes which increasingly have been gaining traction in cognitive and foreign language learning research.

All contributors to this volume adopt a cognitive stance which is in keeping with the contemporary constructivist emphasis on active learners who seek, form, and modify their knowledge, skills, strategies and beliefs. The content included in the volume may appeal to undergraduate students and novice researchers interested in this line of enquiry seeking to ‘dip their toe’ before wading into deeper water.

Contrary to the editor’s claim, I would argue that this volume is of limited interest to teaching professionals, teacher educators and applied linguists. This is on the basis that the approach adopted by the contributors is not applied in nature i.e. it clearly lacks a utilitarian edge. Furthermore, and by the researchers’ own admission, many observations remain tentative and are yet to be replicated in large-scale studies and in controlled settings. While the significance and relevance of each study is promptly explored, by and large this group of authors is somewhat hesitant in putting forward suggestions for practical classroom strategies or instructional applications. Understandably, applying findings in practice should be suggested with caution. Since contributions to this collection have been pitched by both PhD researchers, teaching assistants and lecturers it may be that each author’s length and variety of experience in the education sector was also a contributing factor to the likelihood of them probing the question of the applicability of theories and findings in practice.

There are a number of limitations associated with the studies presented in this edited volume. First, the book is limited to research in a single educational context only, namely higher education. Second, all participants except for those taking part in a study by Georgios P. Georgiou (Chapter 5), were recruited from one student population at Mouloud Mammeri University in Tizi-Ozou. Third, this volume is written from a local perspective concerning EFL learners in the Algerian higher education system. Owing to these contextual, population and geographical restrictions this book certainly succeeds in making a contribution to local research in the field. What is more, its inherent lack of diversity is further reinforced by the contributors’ failure to make a linkage between their research findings and how they could be extended to at least the broader regional context and environments.

Another point concerns the choice of methodology deployed in this volume. Despite a promise of ‘innovative research’ (p.5) questionnaires stand out as the ‘preferred’ data collection method favoured by five out of eight contributors. It is difficult to disregard this pronounced preference for a single method particularly when the rationale for this choice has not been explained. Most of the contributing authors who deployed a questionnaire in their research have come short of using the literature review for its intended purpose, i.e. to identify an appropriate method of data collection. A greater variety of data collection methods would have been expected from an edited volume in order to showcase the plethora of strategies available to researchers in the field of cognitive science and linguistics.

Regretfully, in my view this work is invalidated by a number of issues detrimental to publishing an edited volume. It falls short in terms of analysis, synergy and continuity. In Chapter 1 the editor promises this volume to be an ‘original investigation’ and yet readers, especially from non-Algerian context, are provided with little value-added. On the whole, contributors to this volume offer little by way of innovative research, methodologies, analyses or ground-breaking findings. It is difficult to conceive of this edited book as something more than a collection of loosely put together articles given that neither the structure nor connecting links between the foregoing chapters have been explicated. Although the introductory Chapter 1 exemplifies some of the commonalities across the collection, the book’s interconnectedness and coherence are in question. At minimum this edited collection would have benefited from both a preface clearly outlining the purpose, scope and limitations of the book as well as from an epilogue. The absence of a closing chapter detailing to what degree the objectives of this book have been achieved, considering the volume’s shortcomings and addressing some potential criticism, gives an impression of it being an incomplete work.

REFERENCES

Best, C. 1994. The emergence of native-language phonological influences and infants: A perceptual assimilation model. In J. Goodman & H. Nusbaumm (Eds.), The development of speech perception: The transition from speech sounds to spoken words (pp. 167- 24). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

De Bot, K. & Martens, V. 2015. Finding residual lexical knowledge: the “Savings” approach to testing vocabulary. International Journal of bilingualism, 8 (4), 373-382.

Mokhtari, K. & Reichard, C. 2002. Development of the metacognitive-awareness-of-reading-strategies inventory (MARSI). Unpublished manuscript. Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma.

Nelson, T. 1978. Detecting small amounts of information in memory: Savings for nonrecognised items. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4, 453-468.

Steen, G. J., Dorst, A.G., Herrmann Berenike, J., Kaal, A.A., Krennmayr, T. &Pasma, T. 2010. A method for linguistic metaphor identification: From MIP to MIPVU. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Weiner, B. 1986. An attributional theory of emotion and motivation. New York: Springer-Verlag.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Marta Gasiorowska is a PhD candidate. Having completed an MA in Applied Linguistics she is now investigating issues pertaining to foreign language acquisition from a cognitive perspective. Her interests include second language acquisition, second language teaching, innovative teaching methodologies and usage-based linguistics.

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