Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Thesis defense Peta Baxter (Donders series 554)

5 July 2022

Promotors: prof. dr. H. Bekkering, prof. dr. A.F.J. Dijkstra

Co-promotors: dr. W. Droop, dr. F.T.M. Léoné,

Spot the difference: The effects of contrasting similarities on second language vocabulary learning

This dissertation focuses on the learning difficulties associated with within-language lexical similarity during second language vocabulary learning, and how these can be alleviated. The broad goals are to review, investigate, and specify what we know about word learning in practice, what we know about the cognitive mechanisms that underlie L2 word learning, and how both interact. To account for the difficulties associated with learning similar words, we consider the potential benefits of what we coin "contrasting", i.e., closely comparing, similar items. We posit that contrasting is a mechanism that underlies learning, triggering lexical specification: When similar words are learned, contrasting them enables learners to differentiate them, thereby creating sufficiently specific representations for retrieval. To investigate the effects of contrasting on word learning, we developed an evidence-informed multiple-choice learning task that integrates contrasting. We tested the effects of contrasting with multiple-choice across different types of learners (adults and children), learning environments (in the lab, online, in classrooms), and words (in the native language, in a pseudo-language, in real languages, with semantically similar words, and words at varying levels of orthographic similarity). Our overarching aim is aim to illustrate how research and practice can inform each other, offering opportunities for science to develop comprehensive models of language learning, and for practice to optimize language instruction.