£1 million grant to shed light on how we learn languages

A £1 million grant to help researchers understand what speakers know about languages, in order to help make learning foreign languages easier, has been awarded to the University of Sheffield. 

Dr Mike Croucher, Dagmar Divjak and Dr Petar Milan

Over five years, the Research Leadership Award from the Leverhulme Trust will allow experts to develop new, accurate ways of describing speakers’ linguistic knowledge, by using machine-learning techniques that mimic the way in which humans learn.

The patterns they find will be verified in laboratory settings and then tested on adult foreign language learners to see if such patterns can help them learn a foreign language in a way that resembles how they learned their mother tongue.

The aim is to lead a step-change in research on language and language learning by capturing the linguistic knowledge adult speakers build up when they are exposed to a language in natural settings. These insights will help with the development of strategic language teaching materials to transform the way in which we teach foreign languages.

Dr Dagmar Divjak, Director of the Centre for Linguistic Research at the University of Sheffield and lead of the project, said: “Despite decades of research into language acquisition and phenomenal advances in computing, what we know about languages and how we learn them remains poorly understood.

“Although most speakers have little formal knowledge of the grammar of their language, this doesn’t prevent them from using it to communicate successfully. We want to take an entirely new approach to exploring how they do this because learning a language as an adult is a very different process than learning your first language as a child.”

“Instead of picking up the language effortlessly and without any form of instruction or testing, mastering a new language as an adult is, for most people, one of the most daunting learning tasks they will ever face. The complex meta-structures we have traditionally relied on to scaffold language learning, especially for “difficult” languages, only aggravate the problem.”

Dr Petar Milin, psychologist and collaborator on the project, added: “This research will allow us to see if we can make learning a foreign language easier by replacing word lists and grammar rules with a set of building blocks that remain very close to the input learners receive. If we succeed, our findings will transform the way in which languages are taught and learned, making language learning more natural, rewarding and successful for learners. This would help us build a more multilingual society.

“As a team, we are very pleased that the grant comes at a time when our University is sending a strong message that #WeAreInternational. Doing fundamental research that also facilitates cross-cultural communication is the best way to promote this message and make it our reality.”

The interdisciplinary project, involving a team of linguists, psychologists and computer scientists, will use data from the two most widely spoken languages in the UK: English and Polish.

The team will be led by Dr Dagmar Divjak from the University’s School of Languages and Cultures, in close collaboration with Dr Petar Milin, Department of Journalism Studies, and with Research Software Engineering support from Dr Mike Croucher, Department of Computer Science.

Research will be conducted in the HumLab, the University of Sheffield’s new experimental laboratory for the study of language, music and cognition, housed in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

The grant marks the biggest and most prestigious grant ever awarded to the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. It is also the first to embed a close collaboration with the Faculties of Social Sciences and Engineering, fostering the University’s commitment to interdisciplinarity.

Additional Information

The project is entitled Out of our minds. Optimizing language learning with discriminative algorithms.

To find out more, visit: www.leverhulme.ac.uk/funding/grant-schemes/research-leadership-awards

The Research Leadership Award is one of the largest and most prestigious that the Leverhulme Trust awards. The scheme runs roughly every four years (the previous round was in 2012). Each university is limited to one bid only.

The Leverhulme Trust was established by the Will of William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers. Since 1925 the Trust has provided grants and scholarships for research and education. Today, it is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing approximately £80m a year. For more information about the Trust, please visit www.leverhulme.ac.uk.

The University of Sheffield
With almost 27,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2016 and was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education in 2014. In the last decade it has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further information please contact:

Shemina Davis
Media Relations Manager
University of Sheffield
0114 222 5339