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Language Learning and Executive Function Laboratory

Head: Dr. Anat Prior.

Dr. Anat Prior and her team's research:

Dr. Anat Prior has dedicated her research at the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities to investigating differences between individuals in language learning and processing, with a specific focus on second language.

Interactions between language systems:

In an ongoing research project Dr. Prior and her team have demonstrated specifically for Hebrew speakers that the morphological structure of the L1 (Hebrew) can impact processing in the L2 (English) both at the behavioral level and the neural level. A second ongoing project is exploring the structure of the bilingual lexicon and the nature of the links between words in the two languages.
In the coming years Dr. Prior plans on expanding on this work in two important manners. First, to explore to what degree second language teachers in Israel are aware of the constant interplay between language systems. Working with teachers can also illuminate ways that these interactions can be harnessed to benefit language learners; and second, to examine more closely how the specific mappings of words and concepts across languages may impact vocabulary growth in a foreign language in child and adult learners.

Cognitive consequences of bilingualism:

Dr. Prior and her team have also recently compared the flexibility of monolinguals and various populations of bilinguals in linguistic and non-linguistic processing, and found limited but important similarities across domains.

She has also extended this important line of research to examine pre-school children and elementary school students, once again comparing the performance of monolinguals with that of a unique bilingual population in Israel, speakers of Russian and Hebrew. This work includes two MA students, and was conducted in collaboration with Prof. Mila Schwartz of Oranim College. The results show that this population is exhibiting the advantages previously reported for bilingual children elsewhere, but the degree of bilingualism is an important factor in mediating these effects. The results are currently being written up for publication in a special issue.

Finally, again working with two MA students, Dr. Prior has also examined the joint effect of bilingualism and ADHD on executive functions, because ADHD is linked to a weakness in exactly these areas that bilingualism putatively enhances. The results showed a more pronounced ADHD-related executive function weakness for bilinguals relative to monolinguals, hinting that possibly the burden of two languages taxes their attention system to a greater extent.
Dr. Prior's in depth analysis of the cognitive consequences of bilingualism has lead her to suggest the possibility that executive functions, and specifically flexibility in shifting between cognitive operations and the ability to inhibit irrelevant information, might play an important role in understanding individual differences in L2 learning, a line of research described in the following section.

Second language learning in the Israeli context:

Quite surprisingly, given the major role of language learning in the Israeli context, there is very little local research on learning either Hebrew of English as non-native languages. Dr. Prior sees filling this gap as one of her central contributions to the scientific and educational knowledge base that will ultimately improve learning for Israeli students. To this end, she has collaborated with Prof. Tami Katzir in advising graduate students in our department to address these issues. Rita Zeltsman Kulick, a PhD student, is examining the development of reading comprehension in English as a foreign language among Hebrew speaking adolescents. The project has identified areas of difficulty in English that should be targeted in instruction. This research received funding from the journal Language Learning.

An MA student, Anna Goldina examined vocabulary growth and reading comprehension in Hebrew among Russian speaking adolescents, and has identified basic reading skills as crucial for these abilities. Additionally, Daphna Shahar Yames (a PhD student that Dr. Prior is jointly advising with Prof. Zohar Eviatar) is examining Hebrew literacy (reading, comprehension and spelling) among Russian minority speakers in upper elementary school. The project will identify gaps in performance and identify underlying linguistic and cognitive skills which should be targeted in instruction and intervention. Finally, in collaboration with Prof. Asaid Khateb in a project funded by the Israeli Science Foundation, they are examining the specific challenges of reading in Arabic, given the linguistic distance between the spoken and written varieties of the language. This is a pioneering study, the first to examine the brain bases of reading in Arabic, including novel comparisons to reading in Hebrew, the L2 of this population.

In the future Dr. Prior will continue to pursue questions of second language acquisition and processing. These are of central importance in the Israeli educational setting, where each and every student is required to master a second language and a significant percentage of students also master a third language. I am also now planning to spend my upcoming sabbatical working with Prof. Anne Cunningham at the University of California at Berkeley, a world renowned expert on how teacher knowledge contributes to early reading instructions. Our planned joint research will examine the knowledge base of teachers teaching English as a Second Language to minority language and immigrant children in the US. Upon my return from sabbatical I will apply the insights that arise from this work to the training of English teachers in the Israeli context, and ensuring that they have at their disposal the resources necessary for providing the best evidence-based instruction to their students.

Dr. Prior is currently supervising 6 MA students and 4 Doctoral students.

For more information visit: Language and Numbers Laboratory