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A UK varsity has been awarded a one- million pound grant to help researchers understand what speakers know about languages in order to help make learning foreign languages easier. Over five years, the Research Leadership Award from the Leverhulme Trust will allow experts to develop new, accurate ways of describing speakers' linguistic knowledge, by using machine-learning techniques that mimic the way in which humans learn, the University of Sheffield said. The patterns they find will be verified in laboratory settings and then tested on adult foreign language learners to see if such patterns can help them learn a foreign language in a way that resembles how they learned their mother tongue. The varsity said the aim is to lead a step-change in research on language and language learning by capturing the linguistic knowledge adult speakers build up when they are exposed to a language in natural settings. These insights will help with the development of strategic language teaching materials to transform the way in which it teaches foreign languages. Dr Dagmar Divjak, Director of the Centre for Linguistic Research at the university and lead of the project, said: "Although most speakers have little formal knowledge of the grammar of their language, this doesn't prevent them from using it to communicate successfully.
We want to take an entirely new approach to exploring how they do this because learning a language as an adult is a very different process than learning your first language as a child. "Instead of picking up the language effortlessly and without any form of instruction or testing, mastering a new language as an adult is, for most people, one of the most daunting learning tasks they will ever face. The complex meta-structures we have traditionally relied on to scaffold language learning, especially for 'difficult' languages, only aggravate the problem." Dr Petar Milin, psychologist and collaborator on the project from the University's Department of Journalism Studies, added: "This research will allow us to see if we can make learning a foreign language easier by replacing word lists and grammar rules with a set of building blocks that remain very close to the input learners receive. "If we succeed, our findings will transform the way in which languages are taught and learned, making language learning more natural, rewarding and successful for learners. This would help us build a more multilingual society. The interdisciplinary project, involving a team of linguists, psychologists and computer scientists, will use data from the two most widely spoken languages in the UK: English and Polish. The team will be led by Divjak in close collaboration with Milin and with Research Software Engineering support from Dr Mike Croucher, Department of Computer Science.
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