A path to travel and study how language forms

Theresa Nash Bernstein Scholarship funding honors globe-trotting mother of GSU Regents Professor Lauren Adamson

Samantha Anderson came to Georgia State University to study psycholinguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences, the science of how the brain processes language. She wondered how the structure of a person’s native language might affect their ability to learn words in a second language.

For her master’s thesis, Anderson wanted to compare Spanish speakers learning English to English speakers learning Spanish. She had one problem, though – all of the Spanish speakers in Atlanta were already heavily exposed to English. They already knew some of the things she was trying to test.

To connect her to better research subjects, Anderson turned to the Theresa Nash Bernstein Scholarship for International Travel, which funds study and research abroad for high-achieving students.
Endowed by Regents Professor Lauren B. Adamson and her husband, Professor Walter L. Adamson, the scholarship honors Lauren Adamson’s mother, Theresa Nash Bernstein – a teacher, artist and world traveler. Preference is given to a student taking his or her first trip abroad.

“Travel to other countries is often the best way for graduate students to address some of the most compelling research questions in psychology,” said Lauren Adamson, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, whose field is psychology. “Perhaps even more important, it is the only way they can enter the international research community and prepare for a career that is enriched by global collaboration.”

The funding helped Anderson travel in 2011 to Santiago de Compostela in Spain to work with researchers at the Universidad de Santiago to compare “how speakers of different languages learn manner and path,” Anderson said.

Path, she explained, is the direction in which an action is taken. In English, verbs tend to describe manner of movement (hopping, skipping, etc.), with a separate word to describe path (in, under, through etc.).

In Spanish, the path of action tends to be included in the verb itself (“salir” means “to go out of,” for example.)

This difference can pose a challenge to native Spanish speakers trying to grasp and describe manners of movement in English. Anderson traveled to test how native Spanish speakers learn the difference between a hop, skip and a jump. Her research looked at whether gestures might help – gestures that illustrate the manner of movement that a particular verb describes.

Participants watched videos with starfish-shaped characters moving across the screen, and then heard an English word describing the motion. Some participants also saw gestures illustrating the manner of the movement. Afterward, they were tested on their ability to recall the English words.

Now that her Spanish research is complete, Anderson is planning to test native English speakers on campus in the spring. Then she can begin to compare the two groups.

GSU’s strong programs in language research attracted Anderson to enroll. The Bernstein Scholarship supported her pursuit of that research.

“Going to Spain gave me access to so many people I couldn’t have gotten hold of here,” she said.

—Written by Ann Claycombe, managing editor, GSU College of Arts and Sciences, 404-413-5047