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Studying ‘How Language Grows’

Spend just a bit of time with MSU Professor of Spanish & Second Language Studies Bill VanPatten, and it comes as no surprise that he calls himself a language scientist.

“As a scientist in the department, I’m interested in how language grows in the mind/brain, and what the constraints are on that. And then what implications there may be for language instruction.”

Back at MSU for a second stint (his first position out of graduate school was also at MSU in the 1980s), VanPatten has been working in the Department of Romance and Classical Studies for the past three years and is also core faculty in Second Language Studies. He is internationally known for his work in second language acquisition and second language instruction, and has published six books, seven edited volumes, six language textbooks, and 120 articles and book chapters.

“The main field I work in is the field that I founded. Input processing and second language research is based on a model I developed in the late ‘80s/1990s. It has both theoretical and applied parts that relate to language instruction, for example.” VanPatten says. “In fact, two of my articles from the early to mid-1990s are still the most cited articles in the field of second language study, today.

“It’s cutting edge in the sense that for a long time, people have looked at language as something static, and the way you learn language is something static; that, there’s a rule to learn. You understand how this rule in language works, you practice it, and that’s how it gets in your head.

“And then people like me came along and said, ‘I don’t think so, I think it’s much more like child language acquisition, where what happens is that you have stuff in your mind/brain that organizes language independently of anything else you do.’”

VanPatten says that in learning a language, you need to process language that you hear and read. And in processing that language, you get data that you need and the linguistic system builds up over time.

The model, he says, is called input processing and from that, a pedagogical intervention was derived called processing instruction.

“We can then look at, what happens if, instead of making people practice language, you give them samples of language and you make them do things with that language so they have to process that language in certain ways.

“And sure enough,” he says, “we see growth in language in the mind/brain.”

Being able to speak, read and write more than one language has enormous benefits for an individual, says VanPatten, who grew up in a multilingual home environment himself.

“Research shows that bilingualism does two things to your mind/brain,” he says. “First, it helps you develop a cognitive flexibility that a lot of monolinguals don’t get.

“And, because you are constantly juggling two languages, your brain is constantly multi-tasking, so it can actually process information better and faster than people who are completely monolingual.”

VanPatten says that this ability is crucial in today’s world, as he believes the most influential factor affecting undergraduates, today, is the increasing globalization of the planet. He says that students who think they are living in isolation are fooling themselves and, if they don’t see that, now, they will once they graduate and are out in the real world.

“That’s what a student gains by studying in the College of Arts and Letters, and in a department such as Romance and Classical Studies, for example,” says VanPatten. “A true appreciation for and sense of globalization.”

VanPatten’s advice to students who want to gain advanced proficiency with a second language: “Study abroad. You need to study and work in another culture,” he says. “It’s extremely important.”

He adds that graduates should remember the following:

“Nobody starts at the top. Nobody starts at the middle. You start at the beginning. Getting out of school is just the first step. No matter what you want to do, though, have real passion for it, and things will come together for you.”

– Mike Jenkins, College of Arts and Letters

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