Two grants have been funded by the Royal Society of NZ Marsden Fund for this project

  • Awakening the proto-lexicon
  • Tracking the emergence of an adult proto-lexicon

A proto-lexicon is the type of word knowledge where you know the form of the word but not its meaning. The proto-lexicon is an important part of the process by which infants acquire language. That is, through repeated exposure to running speech, infants gradually learn to separate words from strings of sound and then begin to attach meanings to these words. 

In a previous Marsden funded project (Statistical knowledge with and without a lexicon) we investigated how much knowledge about word structure non-Māori-speaking New Zealanders had about the Māori language. We assumed that they would have less knowledge than speakers of Māori, but more knowledge than people who live overseas and have never been exposed to Māori. We were surprised to find that non Māori-speaking adults in New Zealand have managed, through similar statistical processing that infants have, to acquire representations of core Māori words to form a proto-lexicon of Māori without adding meaning to many of these words. We assume that this knowledge has been acquired over their lifetimes from childhood and arises from incidental exposure to Māori language in both oral and written forms. Until this study, there has been little recognition of the possibility that adults could have an untapped proto-lexicon.

The two current projects take the results of the previous study and ask two questions:

1.         How do non-Māori-speaking New Zealanders build up this proto-lexicon?

2.         Can this proto-lexicon give adult learners of Māori an advantage to learning the language?

 In the first project we aim to understand the emergence of this adult proto-lexicon. How quickly is it built? Does it require exposure to the language in childhood? Is childhood exposure alone sufficient? We will follow four cohorts of people who have differing levels of childhood exposure to the Māori language. One group will be 7-18 year old school children. By testing these children at different ages we will track the trajectory of the emergence and development of the Māori proto-lexicon during childhood. This will help us identify the degree to which childhood exposure is necessary for the formation of the proto-lexicon.

We will also follow NZ-residing adults who were not born in New Zealand. By testing adults with different age of onset of exposure to Māori, we will establish whether childhood exposure is necessary to the development of the full proto-lexicon, or whether a full proto-lexicon still emerges when the first language exposure is in the teens or adulthood.

By recruiting NZ adults living overseas, who have been away from New Zealand for 10 years or more, we will be able to see if the formation of the proto-lexicon requires childhood exposure and whether its maintenance also requires ongoing exposure during adulthood. We will also recruit new adult arrivals to NZ to see the degree to which the beginnings of a proto-lexicon can be detected over the course of their first two years in NZ.

In the sister project we will see if the Māori proto-lexicon of New Zelanders can be ‘awoken’  in adulthood when people learn the language. Do these learners acquire the meanings of Māori words quicker than those who don’t have a proto-lexicon? We will address this question in two ways, one using real life learners, and the other through an online experiment.

The real-life language learning study will track groups of adult students who undertake a short Māori language course as part of their teacher training degrees at New Zealand universities. Of particular interest are the approximately 60 newly arrived Canadians in the University of Canterbury course who have little exposure to the Māori language. The beginners’ course involves learning some basic sentence forms in Māori along with vocabulary which has been determined as being the most useful for use in educational and basic conversational settings. The students also learn a number of Māori songs and prayers. By testing vocabulary knowledge before and after the course we will be able to determine whether the New Zealand students are better than the Canadian students at learning the meanings of Māori words.

The experimental part of the study will be in the form of an online language learning game. We will recruit non Māori-speaking adults from both the United States and New Zealand to learn the meanings of Māori words. In this experiment players will progress through the game by correctly matching each word with its meaning, choosing between the correct meaning and a distractor. A separate test phase will also be included at the conclusion of the game and the results from this will show participants’ overall accuracy at the word learning task. The overall paradigm thus allows us to look at learnability and whether the New Zealand participants are able to learn the word meanings more accurately than the American participants.

New Zealand provides a large-scale real-world laboratory for understanding the degree to which incidental vocabulary learning may or may not differ over different ages and whether this knowledge can be activated when learning the target language in adulthood. The timing, trajectory and implications of the creation of a proto-lexicon is both theoretically important, and potentially impactful in terms of language learning pedagogy.