Maša Vujović
September 2018

What do you work on?

I study lan­guage learn­ing as a process of sta­tis­ti­cal learn­ing over the lan­guage input. I look at this using arti­fi­cial lan­guage learn­ing exper­i­ments and com­pu­ta­tion­al modelling.

“Online research will make well-pow­ered stud­ies with large sam­ple sizes the rule, rather than the exception.”

What did you do using Gorilla?

If you ever stud­ied a for­eign lan­guage, you will have been taught that lan­guages have rules, or, prob­a­bilis­tic ten­den­cies, as I pre­fer to think about it. For exam­ple, in my native lan­guage, Serbo-Croa­t­ian, nouns that end in –a tend to be of fem­i­nine gen­der, and most nouns for fruit are fem­i­nine. In my research, I am inter­est­ed in whether learn­ers are sen­si­tive to these prob­a­bilis­tic pat­terns in sound and mean­ing in the lan­guage they are learn­ing, and whether the abil­i­ty to pick up on these pat­terns helps learn­ers gen­er­al­ize. For exam­ple, if some­one showed me a fruit I’ve never seen before, would I, as a native speak­er of Serbo-Croa­t­ian, expect to hear an a‑ending noun as the name for this fruit?

To answer these kinds of ques­tions, togeth­er with Dr Liz Won­na­cott and Dr Michael Ram­scar, I designed a series of online stud­ies in Gorilla, where I taught par­tic­i­pants arti­fi­cial lan­guages. In these lan­guages, novel, alien-like objects were described using non­sense words and par­ti­cles (for exam­ple: “foob ma” or “jeed pe”). I was inter­est­ed in whether par­tic­i­pants could pick up on the fact that “aliens” which occurred with the same par­ti­cle tend­ed to share cer­tain visu­al and/or audi­to­ry fea­tures, designed to mimic the reg­u­lar­i­ties in mean­ing and sound which we find in nat­ur­al lan­guage. I test­ed this by show­ing par­tic­i­pants a new “alien” which had these crit­i­cal fea­tures, and observ­ing which par­ti­cle par­tic­i­pants grouped this novel item with.

Across three exper­i­ments, I was able to iden­ti­fy sev­er­al fac­tors that affect what and how par­tic­i­pants learn: the order in which par­tic­i­pants are shown the pic­tures of aliens and the cor­re­spond­ing nouns, the num­ber of “aliens” seen dur­ing train­ing, and whether train­ing is timed or self-paced.

A poster pre­sent­ed at Archi­tec­tures and Mech­a­nisms for Lan­guage Pro­cess­ing (AMLaP) in Berlin, Ger­many with more detail of this study can be found here.

Apart from their the­o­ret­i­cal rel­e­vance, these find­ings could have impor­tant impli­ca­tions for sec­ond lan­guage teach­ing in schools.

For you, what is the stand-out fea­ture in Gorilla?

My PhD would be a liv­ing night­mare with­out ver­sion control.

“Since online data col­lec­tion is far less time-con­sum­ing than tra­di­tion­al lab-based test­ing, it lib­er­ates researchers to devote more time to read­ing and writ­ing bet­ter papers.”

How do you think online research is going to change your field?

Online research will make well-pow­ered stud­ies with large sam­ple sizes the rule, rather than the excep­tion in psy­chol­o­gy. There are huge prac­ti­cal impli­ca­tions, too – with data col­lec­tion being much less time con­sum­ing com­pared to tra­di­tion­al lab-based exper­i­ments, researchers will be able to devote more time to read­ing and writ­ing bet­ter papers. Also, par­tic­i­pants are a lot more will­ing to vol­un­teer their time if they can do it from the com­fort of their homes. It’s a win-win all the way!

What is the biggest advan­tage of online research methods?

Apart from the advan­tages I list­ed pre­vi­ous­ly, in my work, it is very impor­tant to con­trol for par­tic­i­pants’ first lan­guage (as this could affect how they learn the arti­fi­cial lan­guage), so I only study native mono­lin­gual speak­ers of Eng­lish, and they are fair­ly dif­fi­cult to find in Lon­don, which can cause delays in data col­lec­tion. Online research makes it eas­i­er to reach large num­bers of native speak­ers of English.

What sci­ence book have your read recent­ly that you’d rec­om­mend to others?

Zoltan Dienes’ Under­stand­ing Psy­chol­o­gy as a Sci­ence is a fan­tas­tic intro­duc­tion to the sci­en­tif­ic method for psy­chol­o­gists. I only wish I’d read it as an undergraduate.

When you’re not work­ing, what do you enjoy doing?

I spend my free time read­ing fic­tion, play­ing squash (poor­ly), and dis­cov­er­ing new places to eat in Lon­don (which, on a PhD stu­dentship, can be a real challenge!).

Maša Vujović
Department of Language and Cognition
PhD student
Maša Vujović

Ready to get started?

More Spotlight Interviews

Alex Jones

Alex Jones

[get-spotlight-info] "People unconsciously associate someone who looks Extraverted with words describing that trait. Using Gorilla, we are now expanding these studies to explain the effect using clinical populations.” Continue Reading Alex Jones

Joseph Devlin

Joseph Devlin

[get-spotlight-info] "We ran an experiment in partnership with Audible, that investigated whether people respond differently to emotionally engaging scenes when they are delivered in video or audiobook format.” Continue Reading Joseph Devlin