Vera Tobin

Elements of Surprise / Publications / Teaching / CV

“SLABERTA Talk Pretty One Day: Modeling Second Language Acquisition with BERT.” ACL 2023. Forthcoming. With Aditya Yadavalli and Alekhya Yadavalli.

Second language acquisition (SLA) research has extensively studied cross-linguistic transfer, the influence of linguistic structure of a speaker’s native language [L1] on the successful acquisition of a foreign language [L2]. Effects of such transfer can be positive (facilitating acquisition) or negative (impeding acquisition). We find that NLP literature has not given enough attention to the phenomenon of negative transfer. To understand patterns of both positive and negative transfer between L1 and L2, we model sequential second language acquisition in LMs. Further, we build a Mutlilingual Age Ordered CHILDES (MAOCHILDES)—a dataset consisting of 5 typologically diverse languages, i.e., German, French, Polish, Indonesian, and Japanese—to understand the degree to which native Child-Directed Speech (CDS) [L1] can help or conflict with English language acquisition [L2]. To examine the impact of native CDS, we use the TILT-based cross lingual transfer learning approach established by Papadimitriou and Jurafsky (2020) and find that, as in human SLA, language family distance predicts more negative transfer. Additionally, we find that conversational speech data shows greater facilitation for language acquisition than scripted speech data. Our findings call for further research using our novel Transformer-based SLA models and we would like to encourage it by releasing our code, data, and models.