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
UCL
Maša Vujović

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