Professor Ping Li, director of the Brain, Language, and Computation Lab at the Penn State University, was invited to deliver a lecture entitled “How Second Language Learning Remodels the Brain” on the afternoon of Nov.13th , 2017.
Prof. Li first presented a general picture of the new science of learning as a window into the complexity of the brain, which consisted of four interrelated disciplines, i.e., psychology, neuroscience, machine learning and education. Bilingualism as a dynamic process could help sculpt the brain; therefore, the psycholinguistics of bilingualism had come to the fore with research methods like computer modelling, ERP and fMRI techniques. Prof. Li then tried to approach the study of L2 learning with a dynamic view. Specifically, L2 learning was studied by short-term training or longitudinal tracking from four perspectives, viz. brain signatures (functional connectivity and structural changes), individual difference (working memory and cognitive control), learning context (traditional vs. 3D virtual environment) and age effects(early vs. late learning in children and adults). The functional and structural changes of the brain induced by L2 learning was reflected in both short-term and long-term learning. In a short-term novel tonal vocabulary training research using the fMRI technique, his team found that compared to less successful learners, successful ones showed a more coherent and integrated multi-path brain network. A similar pattern occurred in the longitudinal tracking of L2 learners. In the study which examined the neural correlates of lexical processing in L2 learners twice over the course of one academic year, they discovered that overall activation in control areas such as the anterior cingulate cortex decreased while connectivity with semantic processing regions such as the middle temporal gyrus increased. In the second half of the talk, Prof. Li made a contrast between traditional associative learning and 3D virtual learning. 3D virtual environments as embodied experiences provided an important facilitatory platform that enhanced second language vocabulary acquisition, especially for later stages of learning. He concluded that 1) learning could rapidly cause functional and structural brain changes which reflected dynamic patterns; 2) individual differences in learning could be identified by brain network analysis; 3) 3D digital technology-based contexts of learning could lead to better and sustained brain changes.
During the Q & Asession, Prof. Li had an animated discussion with the audience about the application and prospect of virtual/augmented reality studies.