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Undergraduate Researchers

Rachel RobinsonRachel Robinson, Modern Languages, Linguistics, and Intercultural Communication

“Introduction to a Language Acquisition Model”

This paper presents an introduction to a theoretical model of language acquisition that incorporates the psycholinguistic principles of Generative Grammar on which the Theory of Principles and Parameters is based, and argues that the following conclusions follow in a natural and logical manner from such a model:
(1) The [mental] Language Acquisition Device becomes functionally less efficient during puberty for reasons pertaining to its internal structure and related to the values on which the parameters of the first language are fixed.
(2) First language acquisition involves setting the parameter values available in Universal Grammar (Chomsky (1989: 27-29), whereas post puberty language acquisition involves the creation of a new set of parameters in reference to the parametric values of the first language.
In addition to the presentation of the above said theoretical model and relevant arguments, the paper elaborates on the neuro-linguistic correlations between such a model and several brain scans of monolingual and bilingual subjects.
Given the theoretical nature of this paper, its methodology follows the principles of deductive argumentation.

My trip to Chile.

Why do you think research is important in an undergraduate education?

I believe that research is important in any area of education. Professors are guides and mentors, not salesmen of information. To truly gain knowledge of a subject, independent thought is required. Going beyond the textbooks, and really diving into the meat of an unexplored area is a challenge, but a necessary one for progress and growth not only in the field, but for the student as well. Students shouldn’t wait until research is “required” of them in graduate school. It’s never too early to take an interest and run with it.

When and how did you find out that you could do independent research or creative work as a UMBC undergraduate?

I was actually researching on my own, floundering a bit, and bouncing ideas around with Professor Westphal. The area of neuro-linguistics is not something which is often studied on the undergraduate level. I think he saw that I wanted to do more than what was required in the classroom, and eventually after many discussions, we started to see that there were patterns and evidence that could be explored. At that point, he informed me that there were opportunities for undergraduates to do research and be supported by UMBC.

How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?

I’ve had a dual love-affair with linguistics and the human sciences for as long as I can remember. The problem is that in many ways they seem to be mutually exclusive, at least in regards to how they are approached. I never really believed this should be the case, and I felt that they could be very valuable and complementary to one another. To take an abstract idea, something like the Critical Period of Language Acquisition (which is anecdotally understood) and explain it in terms of brain development and function, that was a very exciting topic to me. The beauty really presents itself when a linguist can look at this and understand that there are concrete mechanisms in place within the human body that can be measured, and when a neurologist can look at this and see that there are still vast wonderments in the creativity of language.

What has been the most challenging aspect of this project?

Time is always a factor; I have so little of it. In that regard I’ve felt challenged because there are many things which I would like to work on, or ideas that I’d like to put down on paper, but because of the obligations of life, I am often unable. Thankfully, I have had enormous amount of support from my entire family as well as my coworkers. That kind of support has helped me in ways I cannot articulate. Another aspect which is a meaningful challenge is the risk of being wrong, the challenge of scrapping ideas and putting one’s ego aside for the sake of quality research.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?

Take the initiative and responsibility for your education. If you have an area of interest that doesn’t fit neatly into your regular curriculum then get involved in research. If you aren’t sure where to begin with research then speak candidly with your professors and assess your strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t about instant gratification, but ultimately the experience is a huge reward.

How did UMBC help you with your research?

The Travel Funding was an integral part of this experience, without it, I’m not sure if I would have been able to participate in the SOCHIL conference. I feel that between the ongoing support from my mentor Dr. German Westphal with the MLLI department, and the Travel Grant Committee, UMBC as a whole has helped me reach goals that I initially thought were perhaps a bit lofty. My opinion has changed dramatically, and now I am aiming even higher than ever, I am inspired to continue and expand on my studies, and I have more confidence in my own abilities. The hard work completed and the memories of the fantastic trip are so rewarding, but are nevertheless overshadowed by the way this has helped shape my goals for the future. I am eternally grateful to Dr. Westphal, The Travel Grant Committee, and my alma mater UMBC.