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Final Report Summary - AMBIGUITY IN FLVL (Ambiguity in Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning)

The goal of my work is to better characterize the pattern of interactions among the languages of multilinguals, and the mechanisms supporting efficient foreign-language learning. Both issues are imperative in today's global society. The current project specifically focused on how the mapping between the to-be-learned language and the learner’s linguistic and cognitive background interact to contribute to foreign-language vocabulary learning.

During the CIG fellowship, my work advanced these goals in several ways. First, the focus on the alignment of lexical-form and word meaning(s) across the languages of multilinguals (for review see Degani & Tokowicz, 2010) has resulted in a set of 3 studies characterizing how one’s first-language influences processing of the second-language among proficient different-script Arabic-Hebrew bilinguals (Degani, Prior & Hajajra, under review; Prior, Degani, Awawdy, Yassin, & Korem, under review; Peleg, Degani, Raziq, & Taha, in invited revision). The results show that when proficient bilinguals process Hebrew letter-strings overlapping phonologically with an Arabic word (interlingual homophones, e.g., ‘lachem’ meaning meat in Arabic but bread in Hebrew), that non-target lexical representation is activated and influences word recognition and semantic processes. These findings demonstrate the inevitable influence of the unintended language, even when bilinguals operate in contexts which require one language only and unequivocally signal target language membership (see also Norman, Degani, & Peleg, 2016).

The insights from these studies and the developed material-set informed an ongoing master's project examining learning of cross-language interlingual homophones in comparison to cognate and control words. Further, we are working on embedding these items in sentences to examine their processing by measuring eye-movements during reading.

Ambiguity in the mapping across languages can also take the form of ‘translation ambiguity’, where a word in one language corresponds to more than one correct translation in the other language. During the fellowship we have published on the determinants of such translation ambiguity, characterizing its relation with within-language semantic ambiguity (Degani, Prior, Eddington, Âreas Da Luz Fontes, & Tokowicz, 2016). Moreover, we have published on the way in which it can give rise to cross-language influences for proficient bilingual speakers. Specifically we showed that the relatedness of intra-word senses of an ambiguous word is influenced by the number of translations that word has in the other language of bilingual speakers (Degani & Tokowicz, 2013). We have also published on how translation ambiguity can be used to examine the relatedness of intra-word senses, and how these semantic factors modulate the translation-ambiguous words are learned (Bracken, Degani, Eddington, & Tokowicz, in press). In addition, following a literature review on vocabulary learning in laboratory studies (Tokowicz & Degani, 2015) we have conducted a large scale learning study in which 30 native Hebrew speakers and 30 Russian-Hebrew bilinguals learned novel Arabic vocabulary in a multiple (4) session training study. Results reveal that translation ambiguity hinders learning and that this effect is not modulated by multilingualism per se. Instead, we observed that proficiency in the language from which learning takes place modulates learning. These results are currently being written-up for publication (Degani & Kruchkovsky, in preparation), and extend our previous work on the ambiguity disadvantage during learning (Degani & Tokowicz, 2010; Degani, Tseng, & Tokowicz, 2014). We have also conducted and submitted a literature review on the effects of multilingualism on novel language learning more generally (Hirosh & Degani, in invited revision).

Finally, the current project aimed to examine changes in first-language representations due to brief experiences with a foreign-language by way of vocabulary learning. In our recent work we have extended this line of thought to show that processing in one language undergoes changes as a function of brief experience with a different (known or unknown) language (Kreiner & Degani, 2015). Ongoing research examines these issues in other linguistic domains and other multilingual populations (Degani, Kreiner, Ataria, & Khateeb, in preparation).

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