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International Journal of Bilingual Education and
ISSN: 1367-0050 (Print) 1747-7522 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rbeb20
The impact of second- and third-language learning
on language aptitude and working memory
Ting Huang, Hanneke Loerts & Rasmus Steinkrauss
To cite this article: Ting Huang, Hanneke Loerts & Rasmus Steinkrauss (2020): The impact of
second- and third-language learning on language aptitude and working memory, International
Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, DOI: 10.1080/13670050.2019.1703894
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050.2019.1703894
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Published online: 04 Jan 2020.
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The impact of second- and third-language learning on language
aptitude and working memory
Ting Huang , Hanneke Loerts and Rasmus Steinkrauss
Center for Language and Cognition (CLCG), University of Groningen, the Netherlands
An increasing number of adults learn more than one foreign language
simultaneously. While the cognitive beneﬁts of using multiple languages
from birth have been studied extensively, little is known about possible
cognitive beneﬁts of learning multiple languages simultaneously in
adulthood. Among the cognitive abilities which play a role in language
learning, language aptitude (LA) and working memory (WM) are argued
to be crucial. Traditionally considered relatively stable, recently they are
advocated to be changeable. For example, one could imagine that
learning new sounds, words, and structures in a language might both
enhance the ability to temporarily hold and manage information (WM)
and improve the ease with which subsequent languages are learnt (LA).
Therefore, this study investigates whether LA and WM change while
learning languages, and whether language learning intensity, i.e.
learning one versus two foreign languages simultaneously, modulates
this eﬀect. Participants consisted of ﬁrst-year and second-year Chinese
university students majoring in English or English & Japanese/Russian.
Data were collected twice with an interval of one academic year. The
results show that all learners improved in certain aspects of LA and WM,
and that among the ﬁrst-year students, the two-foreign-languages
learners outperformed their counterparts in WM improvement. The
implications are discussed.
Received 8 May 2019
Accepted 4 December 2019
L2 and L3 learning; language
aptitude; working memory
The process of second language (L2) learning is determined by complex and multifaceted factors
(Dörnyei and Skehan 2003). Of these factors, language aptitude (LA) has often been considered as
a set of abilities crucial for L2 learning (Skehan 2015). Traditionally, it has been argued that there
are four components of LA, namely phonemic coding ability, associative memory, grammatical sen-
sitivity, and inductive language learning ability (Carroll 1965). However, recently a new understanding
of working memory (WM) triggered a discussion on the conceptualization of LA (Granena 2013; Wen
2016), and WM has been argued to be a part of LA (e.g. Miyake and Friedman 1998;Li2013; Wen and
Skehan 2011; Wen 2015,2016,2019). Originally proposed by Baddeley and Hitch (1974), WM refers to
a memory system that both provides temporary storage and enables the manipulation of the infor-
mation necessary for complex cognitive tasks such as language comprehension, learning, and
reasoning (Baddeley 1992,2003).
© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
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CONTACT Ting Huang email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
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INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION AND BILINGUALISM
Been considered as a relatively stable trait of language learners (Carroll 1981) for decades, LA has
been viewed from a dynamic perspective by a growing number of researchers lately (e.g. Eisenstein
1980; Grigorenko, Sternberg, and Ehrman 2000; Sáfár and Kormos 2008; Singleton 2014; Singleton
2017; Thompson 2013). They argue that LA is not necessarily an unchangeable trait, instead, it is prob-
ably malleable according to the language learning experience and the language instruction a learner
receives. Similar to LA, WM has been viewed as a constant trait (Klingberg 2010), but recent studies
(e.g. Jaušovec and Jaušovec 2012; Klingberg 2010; Kogetsidis 2012; von Bastian and Oberauer 2013)
have shown that it may be improved through training. While most of the studies investigating the
changeability of LA focus on language learning eﬀects, only few of the studies exploring the change-
ability of WM have examined the impact of language learning. Even fewer studies have examined the
impact of language learning intensity, i.e. the number of languages being learnt or have been learnt,
on the development of LA and WM jointly.
The current study tries to ﬁll this gap and sets out to investigate, ﬁrst, whether LA and WM are
changeable and, second, to what extent the number of languages being learnt have an eﬀect on
LA and WM development. We assume that LA and WM are not stable as traditionally considered,
but that they can develop during intensive foreign language learning. Moreover, we assume that
learning one vs. two foreign language(s) simultaneously may lead to diﬀerences in LA and WM
The deﬁnition and components of LA and WM
The recognition of an individual’s LA as a factor for L2 learning may be traced back to Carroll, who
deﬁned foreign LA as an ‘individual’s initial state of readiness and capacity for learning a foreign
language, and probable degree of facility in doing so’(Carroll 1981, 86). LA consists four components,
namely phonemic coding ability, associative memory, grammatical sensitivity, and inductive
language learning ability (Carroll 1965). Phonemic coding ability is the capacity to discriminate
sounds and analyze foreign sounds; associative memory is the ability to make connections
between stimuli and target responses in memory; grammatical sensitivity refers to the ability to ident-
ify the functions of words in sentences, and inductive language learning ability is the skill to recognize
linguistic regularities in the input. This proposition that LA is not a monolithic construct has had a
profound inﬂuence on subsequent LA research (Skehan 2002). While Carroll’s four-factor model of
LA still seems valid today, as Skehan (1991) pointed out, each of the factors might still beneﬁt
from a revision by taking into account recent developments in related disciplines. For example,
when the classic LA test MLAT (Modern Language Aptitude Test) was developed by Carroll and
Sapon (1959), associative memory was regarded as the dominant form of memory. However, the per-
spectives on memory have changed radically since, characterized by the importance now attached to
WM (Skehan 2012). Following this trend, Skehan (2012) included WM into the LA repertoire. This is
very much in line with Robinson’s suggestion to integrate WM measures into aptitude subtests
(Robinson, 2001,2002,2005), and with Wen’s Phonological WM/Executive WM model (Wen 2015,
WM is a memory system involved in many complex cognitive tasks, such as language comprehen-
sion, learning, and reasoning, during which the system temporarily stores and manipulates the infor-
mation needed (Baddeley 1992;2003). According to Baddeley and Hitch (1974) and Baddeley (2000),
WM comprises an attentional control system, the central executive, and three subsidiary slave
systems: the phonological loop, the visuospatial sketchpad, and the episodic buﬀer. While the pho-
nological loop stores verbal and verbal-acoustic information, the visuospatial sketchpad holds visual
and visuospatial information. The episodic buﬀer, a limited-capacity temporary storage system, inte-
grates this auditory and visuospatial information and is linked to long-term memory. The central
executive, which controls the three subsystems, retrieves, manipulates, and modiﬁes information
2T. HUANG ET AL.
(Baddeley 2000). Each component of WM capacity is related to language learning in its own way. The
phonological loop has been argued to play an important role in vocabulary learning in both the L1
(Baddeley, Gathercole, and Papagno 1998) and L2 (e.g. Service 1992; Atkins and Baddeley 1998)as
the phonological loop is closely linked to verbal long-term memory (Baddeley 2015). The role of
the visuospatial sketchpad and the episodic buﬀer in language learning is yet uncertain (Baddeley
2015), but it could be argued that they play a role in L2 reading and in the integration of auditory
and visual information, respectively. The central executive is relevant to general learning mechan-
isms, and has been argued to be involved in shifting between and inhibiting languages (Green
and Abutalebi 2013)–arguably, the more so the more languages need to be managed.
The eﬀect of LA and WM on language learning
The study of LA in SLA research can provide important insights because LA partly predicts language
learning success (Skehan 1991). Therefore, recent years have witnessed a substantial amount of
studies investigating how and to what extent LA can predict L2 development. LA has repeatedly
been found to have a speciﬁcally powerful impact on L2 learning outcomes when compared to
other factors. Those factors include age of onset, length of residence (Granena and Long 2012),
ﬁrst language skills, and L2 aﬀect, such as motivation and anxiety (Sparks et al. 2009). The impact
of LA on L2 learning becomes more prominent when it comes to adult L2 learning, especially in
language analysis ability (e.g. Harley and Hart 1997), and for those individuals who attain native-
like proﬁciency (e.g. Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam 2008). Similarly, LA, as measured by the High
Level Language Aptitude test (Hi-LAB), has been argued to be the strongest predictor for high
levels of achievement in language learning after puberty (Doughty et al. 2010; Linck et al. 2013).
Still other studies demonstrated that the power of LA to predict L2 learning depends on L2 learn-
ing stages and language instruction methods (Li 2015), and that diﬀerent LA components showed
diﬀerent predictive powers for diﬀerent aspects of L2 learning (Li 2016). For example, phonemic
coding ability, as measured by the LLAMA-D test, especially impacted learners at the early stages
of L2 learning (Artieda and Muñoz 2016). In the same vein, Li’s(2015) meta-analysis showed that
LA, as measured by traditional aptitude tests such as MLAT, was more relevant to initial stages of
explicit L2 learning. In sum, these studies thus show a positive eﬀect of (components of) LA for
diﬀerent L2 learning methods at diﬀerent stages.
Also, WM argued to be an important aspect of LA by some scholars (e.g. Miyake and Friedman
1998; Wen and Skehan 2011; Wen 2015,2016), has increasingly drawn the attention of L2 researchers.
Studies have examined which subsystem of WM is a predictor of L2 proﬁciency, or how the WM sub-
systems aﬀect learner groups with diﬀerent levels of L2 proﬁciency. For example, executive WM as
measured by complex span tasks has been found to be a stronger predictor for L2 proﬁciency
than WM as measured by simple span tasks (Linck et al. 2014). And executive WM and phonological
WM, as assessed by an operation span task and a digit span task respectively, both tend to beneﬁt
learners with lower L2 proﬁciency (Seraﬁni and Sanz 2016).
Another set of studies explores the relationship between WM and diﬀerent L2 skills, such as speak-
ing and writing. Bergsleithner (2010), for example, found that WM, as measured by means of an L1
operation-word span test, showed a signiﬁcant positive correlation with L2 writing performance in
terms of accuracy and complexity. L2 learners with higher WM also have a higher tendency to
modify their oral production (Mackey, Adams, and Staﬀord 2010). Similar results were found by
Payne and Ross (2005), in which the WM capacity was measured by a reading span and a non-
word repetition task.
The above studies have found suﬃcient evidence that LA and WM play important roles in L2 learn-
ing. However, most of these studies (apart from Seraﬁni and Sanz 2016) measured LA and WM only
once, usually in the beginning of the period under investigation. As the stability of both constructs is
increasingly being questioned, the question is whether LA and WM may be trained and changed in
the process of L2 learning, given the critical roles that these abilities play in L2 learning. As laid out in
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION AND BILINGUALISM 3
the following section, various studies have demonstrated that the number of languages spoken by a
person is related to their scores in abilities related to WM and LA, suggesting that there might be a
training eﬀect of learning and speaking several languages.
Eﬀects of multiple languages learning on LA and WM
As argued by de Bot (2012), it may be possible that multilingual learners suﬀer from disadvantages in
certain language learning situations, because they have the same resources, such as memory capacity
and attention, but more languages to cope with. However, it is also plausible that multilingual lear-
ners are equipped with more and/or better resources, because they have learnt to cater to more lin-
guistic systems, and are richer in language learning experience. Given the general view that LA and
WM are important resources aﬀecting language learning, it might be asked whether there is a bi-
directional relationship between language learning on the one hand, and LA and/or WM on the
other (Linck et al. 2014). This possible bi-directional relationship between L2 proﬁciency and LA
and/or WM could be compared with the bi-directional relationship between muscle strength and
running speed in sprinters: while gaining muscle strength will lead to faster running, running
faster at the same time trains the muscles and leads to greater strength. Similarly, it might be ima-
gined that intensive language learning will not only improve a learner’s language proﬁciency, but
also their LA and/or WM capacity simply by actively using and hence potentially training these cog-
nitive resources. And this potential eﬀect might increase with the number of languages as WM and LA
are both more challenged by and trained by using several languages.
Research into this question is scarce, but positive correlations between the number of languages a
participant had learnt and their LA and WM were discovered in previous studies. For example, Ma,
Yao, and Zhang (2018) found that bi-foreign-language learners scored higher than one-foreign-
language learners in the LLAMA test (Meara 2005). Similarly, Grigorenko, Sternberg, and Ehrman
(2000) found a positive correlation between the number of languages that the participants used
and LA scores as measured by the CANAL-F test (Grigorenko, Sternberg, and Ehrman 2000). Regard-
ing WM, Morales, Calvo, and Bialystok (2013), for example, found that bilingual children performed
signiﬁcantly better than monolingual children in WM tasks, especially in those tasks demanding
executive functioning. The results of this study were corroborated by a comprehensive meta-analysis
conducted by Grundy and Timmer (2017), which revealed that bilinguals enjoy a greater WM capacity
than otherwise comparable monolinguals.
There are thus some indications that the number of languages learnt or spoken impacts WM and
LA in a positive way. However, of course, all of the ﬁndings cited are correlational in nature, and
should, therefore, be interpreted with caution, because they do not necessarily reveal underlying
causal relations (Grigorenko, Sternberg, and Ehrman 2000). Sound evidence from empirical studies
supporting a positive eﬀect of the intensity of language learning on LA, and more so on WM, is
still lacking. At the same time, to assume that LA and WM can be aﬀected by language learning
also means that one assumes these two abilities to be changeable. As discussed in the following
section, recent research indeed suggests this to be the case.
LA and WM as changeable cognitive abilities
Both LA and WM have increasingly come to be considered changeable traits in recent years. While LA
is traditionally thought of as a relatively stable language learner trait that is immune to training
(Carroll 1965,1981), a growing number of researchers such as Singleton (2017), who agrees with
Wen’s(2016) proposal of viewing WM as an important part of LA, have started to question the stab-
ility of LA. Following this line of thought, recent empirical studies involving a pre-test/post-test design
have provided some evidence for the changeability of LA. For instance, in Sáfár and Kormos (2008)
study, students in an intensive language instruction program gained signiﬁcantly more in LA scores
than their peers in a regular language instruction program. Likewise, foreign LA as measured by the
4T. HUANG ET AL.
MLAT (Carroll and Sapon 1959) could be signiﬁcantly improved through a language training program,
even among students with an identiﬁed learning disability (Sparks et al. 1996).
Similar to LA, the ﬂexibility of WM has long been discussed. Furthermore, Seraﬁni (2017) proposed
to investigate the dynamic nature of WM under the Dynamic System Theory framework (DST;
Cameron and Larsen-Freeman 2007; de Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor 2007; de Bot and Larsen-
Freeman 2011), to ‘broaden and deepen our understanding’(384) of the cognitive aspects of L2 learn-
ing and their possible interactions.
Several meta-analyses on the trainability of WM have emphasized the inconsistent results con-
cerning the presence of a training eﬀect, the potential size of the eﬀect, the eﬀect of diﬀerent training
tasks, and the transfer eﬀects to broader cognitive systems (e.g. Karbach and Verhaeghen 2014;
Melby-Lervåg and Hulme 2013; Sala and Gobet 2017; Soveri et al. 2017). Despite these inconsisten-
cies, some studies have demonstrated that WM is not immune to training, but rather changeable
under certain interventions or treatments (Jaušovec and Jaušovec 2012; Klingberg 2010; Kogetsidis
2012; von Bastian and Oberauer 2013).
Klingberg (2010) investigated the neuroscientiﬁc reasons for the trainability of general WM
capacity, and pointed out its remediating intervention function for individuals who suﬀer from
poor academic performance resulting from lower WM capacity. Holmes, Gathercole, and Dunning
(2009) trained the WM of 22 children with learning diﬃculties for a period of ﬁve to seven weeks.
Results showed that the children improved their WM scores substantially, with regard to verbal
short-term memory, visuospatial short-term memory, verbal WM, and visuospatial WM. These
improvements in WM in return ameliorated those children’sdeﬁcits and associated learning diﬃcul-
ties. Hayashi, Kobayashi, and Toyoshige (2016) argued for an insight into the dynamic nature of WM.
Their study showed that the combination of language training and WM training resulted in a signiﬁ-
cant improvement in WM scores and these gains were maintained three months later. WM training
was found to be eﬀective among elderlies as well (Carretti et al. 2013), and this WM training eﬀect
transferred to language ability and was likewise maintained at the 6-month follow-up test.
To look into the changeability of LA and WM under the circumstance of language learning, a setting
where a comparison between diﬀerent language learning intensity groups can be made and where a
pre-test-and-post-test design can be applied is needed. Bi-foreign-language programs in China oﬀer a
quasi-experimental condition suited for such an investigation. They are a new type of program for teach-
ing foreign languages at the university level where the bi-foreign-language majors learn English and an
additional foreign language (AFL) simultaneously, while their peers in the English major learn English
only. In spite of this, both groups have exactly the same curriculum for English instruction. In the ﬁrst
two years of university, for learners from both groups, the courses are focused on training listening,
reading, writing and speaking. The English majors are trained in English language skills, while the bi-
foreign-language majors are trained in English and in the other foreign language.
The current study aims at exploiting this unique context to investigate the following issues: the
potential changeability of LA and/or WM, and the possible language learning intensity eﬀect on
LA and/or WM. The research questions are:
First, do foreign language learners improve in LA and WM after one academic year?
Second, do bi-foreign-language learners outperform one-foreign-language learners in LA and WM development?
According to previous ﬁndings suggesting that LA and WM are changeable abilities (Sáfár and
Kormos 2008; Klingberg 2010; Holmes, Gathercole, and Dunning 2009), and that LA and WM can
be inﬂuenced by language experiences (Ma, Yao, and Zhang 2018; Morales, Calvo, and Bialystok
2013), we hypothesize that:
First, our participants’LA and WM scores will improve after one academic year of foreign language learning.
Second, diﬀerent language learning groups will diﬀer from each other in LA and WM improvement, with the bi-
foreign-language learners outperforming one–foreign-language learners.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION AND BILINGUALISM 5
To investigate the potential eﬀects of the number of languages being learnt on the development of
LA and/or WM, the present study compared subjects from three diﬀerent language learning con-
ditions (English, English/Japanese, and English/Russian majors) from two diﬀerent cohorts of subjects
(ﬁrst- and second-year students). Using a pre/post-test design, each subject was tested twice on both
LA and WM with an interval of 9 months (one academic year).
The study was carried out in a Chinese university belonging to an elite group of ‘National Key Uni-
versities’. To be admitted to the foreign language programs in this university, the applicants need
to gain a certain total score in the China National Higher Education Entrance Examination
(Gaokao), and also score above the cutoﬀscore for the English test. Even though socio-economic
status was not examined in the present study, these entry requirements warrant a comparable
level of general intelligence and academic aptitude among all participants. None of the students
suﬀered from a learning disability.
The participants consisted of English majors (henceforth L2 learners), who study English only,
and bi-foreign-language majors (henceforth L2 + 3 learners),
who study English and another
foreign language simultaneously. Of the 79 participants, 71 were female and the average age
was 18.63 (SD = 0.89). All had started to learn English at around the age of 9 years and all the
L2 + 3 majors started to learn the additional foreign language upon entering the university
(around the age of 18). Although all participants had been learning English for 9 years before
enrolled in university, their English proﬁciency was not yet developed up to an advanced level.
English proﬁciency was therefore assessed and also compared between groups to ensure that all
participants started with a comparable level, and actually still continued learning English while at
The participants were recruited from the ﬁrst-year and second-year cohorts. Each cohort con-
sisted of L2 learners and L2 + 3 learners. Within the L2 + 3 learners’group were two sub-groups:
one English/Japanese learner group and one English/Russian learner group. In the second-year,
the students who had been English majors (L2 learners) in the ﬁrst year also started to learn an
additional foreign language for four hours per week (see Table 1), Since these learners were still
mainly learning English and received comparatively little instruction in their additional language,
they are labeled L2+ learners to distinguish them clearly from the L2 + 3 learners who, as bi-
foreign language majors, received about equally much English and additional language instruction.
See the details in Table 1.
As shown in Table 1,ﬁrst-year L2 learners and L2 + 3 learners had the same amount of English
instruction, but L2 + 3 learners had 8 hours of instruction for the second foreign language.
Second-year L2+ and L2 + 3 learners had the same amount of English instruction, but while the
L2 + 3 learners received 10 hours of AFL instruction per week, the L2+ learners only received 4
hours of that in their AFL.
Table 1. Participant groups and the type and amount of instruction.
Participants First year Second year
Groups L2 learner L2 + 3 learner L2+ learner L2 + 3 learner
E/J E/R E/J E/R
Sample Population 12 21 16 9 12 9
E: 16 E:16 E:16 E:12 E:12 E:12
J:8 R:8 FL:4 J:10 R:10
Note: *E/J: English/Japanese learners; E/R: English/Russian learners; E: English; J: Japanese; R: Russian; FL: foreign languages, includ-
ing Japanese, Russian, German and French.
6T. HUANG ET AL.
The LLAMA test (Meara 2005) was chosen to assess LA for its attested validity and reliability (e.g.
Granena 2013; Rogers et al. 2017), and its free accessibility and convenience of administration
(Rogers et al. 2017). The test was administered on computers using the LLAMA software, which
is free to download (http://www.lognostics.co.uk/tools/llama/). Loosely based on the MLAT
(Carroll and Sapon 1959), the LLAMA test consists of four subtests, namely LLAMA-B, LLAMA-D,
LLAMA-E and LLAMA-F (Meara 2005). All tests include a learning phase and a testing phase,
and use stimuli based on an artiﬁcial language. LLAMA-B is a vocabulary learning task, which
measures the ability to learn vocabulary in a relatively short time. LLAMA-D is a sound recognizing
task, which measures the ability to recognize short sound patterns in spoken language. LLAMA-E
is a sound-symbol correspondence task, testing the subjects’ability to work out the relationship
between recorded syllables and their corresponding transliteration. Finally, LLAMA-F is a gramma-
tical inferencing task. It requires the subjects to match pictures with corresponding descriptions in
the artiﬁcial language.
WM span task
The Operation Span task (OSP) was used to measure WM capacity. Although WM is recognized as
a system comprising both domain-general executive functions such as information updating,
switching and inhibition, and domain-speciﬁc storage mechanisms for verbal and visuospatial
information (Wen 2016; Williams 2012), domain-general WM tasks enjoy higher validity and
reliability than domain-speciﬁc WM tasks (Sanchez et al. 2010). The OSP is a complex domain-
general WM span task which measures both the ability to maintain information and the ability
to manage and manipulate the information. It diﬀers from other complex domain-speciﬁc span
tasks, such as the reading span task and the speaking span task, in that it is language indepen-
dent (Wen 2016), which makes the OSP task particularly suitable for L2 learning research (Wil-
An automatic version of the OSP task published by Unsworth et al. (2005) (see Figure 1) created in
E-Prime 2.0 (Schneider, Eschman, and Zuccolotto 2002) was used in the present study. The partici-
pants need to remember letters they have been shown after judging whether a math equation is
correct or not. After three to seven math problems and letters shown, the subjects are asked to
recall the letters in the order they were shown. In this way, both the memory span (how many
letters were remembered correctly) and the ability to maintain information while focusing on a
diﬀerent task, i.e. solving a math problem, are assessed.
Figure 1. The automatic version of operation span task.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION AND BILINGUALISM 7
English language proﬁciency assessment
The English proﬁciency was represented by the participants’writing and speaking proﬁciency.
Writing proﬁciency was assessed by writing tasks from the comprehensive English course. All of
the writing texts were rated holistically following Hou, Verspoor, and Loerts’s(2016) CAFIC model,
covering complexity, accuracy, ﬂuency, idiomaticity and coherence. The mean scores of the ﬁrst
two and the last two writing samples served as pre-test and post-test writing proﬁciency scores
respectively. Speaking proﬁciency was assessed by adjusted Student Oral Proﬁciency Assessment
(SOPA) interviews (Thompson, Kenyon, and Rhodes 2002) developed by the Center for Applied Lin-
guistics. The participants’interviews were rated using the SOPA Rating Scale which evaluates oral
proﬁciency in four dimensions: oral ﬂuency, vocabulary, grammar, and listening comprehension.
Each dimension has nine sublevels, ranging from junior novice low to junior advanced high. The
proﬁciency score used for analysis was the total score of the four sub-measures.
The LLAMA test and OSP task were administered at the beginning (September 2017) and at the
end of the academic year (June 2018). The LLAMA test was carried out in a multimedia room, in
which 20 participants took the test simultaneously. Before the test, written instructions in the partici-
pants’L1 were provided. During the test, a technician and the ﬁrst author of the present study were
present, ready to help. The test took half an hour on average. The OSP task was administered in a
well-prepared quiet room with two computers, where two participants did the test simultaneously.
The task per se is language-neutral, but a written instruction was provided in the participants’L1.
A technician always introduced the task to the participants before the test began.
The writing texts used for the analysis of English writing proﬁciency were collected for one aca-
demic year, but in the current study, only the ﬁrst and last two texts were analyzed to assess the proﬁ-
ciency at the beginning and the end of the academic year. These texts were collected in the same
period when the LA and WM tests were administered. The adjusted SOPA interviews were taken
at the same day as the WM test, in a separate room where the participants took the interview in pairs.
The aims of the current study were to examine (1) whether LA and WM are changeable, and (2) if so,
whether there is a language learning intensity eﬀect.
Before answering these two research questions, a preliminary analysis on the participants’L2 English
proﬁciency was carried out to ensure that the L2 learners and L2 + 3 learners started with comparable
levels of proﬁciency continued learning the L2. This analysis was conducted in order to avoid a possible
interference of English proﬁciency with the ﬁndings on LA and WM, and to conﬁrm that the partici-
pants’L2 English was still under development at the time of observation. Independent-samples t-
tests were used to compare the L2 and L2 + 3 initial English scores, and paired-samples t-tests were
run to compare each learner group’s pre- and post-scores for English, both written and oral.
To answer the main research questions, the two cohorts were analyzed separately. The ﬁrst
research question was investigated by a repeated-measures ANOVA analysis on the scores of all
the diﬀerent tests, with one within-subject factor with two levels, pre-test score vs. post-test score.
The second question was investigated by an ANCOVA analysis on each test. In this analysis, the
post-test scores of each test were taken as the dependent variable. Language group was taken as
aﬁxed factor and pre-test scores were taken as a covariate factor.
The dependent variable used in all analyses was the score of the respective test. For LA, this was
LLAMA subtests scores (LLAMA-B/D/E/F), each ranging from 0 to 100 (Meara 2005). For WM capacity,
this was the absolute score for the OSP task, which is the sum of all perfectly recalled sets (Unsworth
et al. 2005). This score ranged from 0 to 75. Regarding the ﬁrst research question, a signiﬁcant main
8T. HUANG ET AL.
eﬀect of testing time on test scores would indicate that LA and WM are changeable. Regarding the
second question, a signiﬁcant eﬀect of learning one vs. two languages on post-test scores while con-
trolling for the pre-test scores would point to a language learning intensity eﬀect on the change in LA
The preliminary analysis of English proﬁciency
No signiﬁcant diﬀerences were found between L2 learners and L2 + 3 learners in their initial English
proﬁciency level. The results also demonstrate that both groups were still in the process of learning
English as an L2, as they increased signiﬁcantly from pre- to post-test in both writing and speaking
proﬁciency. An exception was the second-year L2 learners which however showed a strong trend
towards signiﬁcance (p= 0.065) regarding their gains in writing proﬁciency. Table 2 shows the
details of the groups’English writing proﬁciency and Table 3 provides an overview of their English
Changeability of LA and WM
The main eﬀect of testing time, indicating the changeability of LA and WM, was found for the OSP
task scores and the LLAMA subtest scores, but the eﬀect varied for diﬀerent cohorts (see Table 4
for details). While descriptive statistics show an improvement of all participants on all tests, not
every diﬀerence was signiﬁcant. Table 4 shows the details for the ﬁrst-year students and Table 5 sum-
marizes the results for the second-year students.
Unlike the ﬁrst-year students, whose improvement only reached signiﬁcance in the LLAMA-D and
LLAMA-E scores, the second-year students signiﬁcantly improved in LLAMA-B and LLAMA-F. Both
cohorts signiﬁcantly improved on the OSP task, however, with the eﬀect size being large in the
ﬁrst-year students and medium in the second-year students.
Table 2. Initial status and development of writing proﬁciency.
Independent Sample T-
Test for pre-scores
Paired Sample T-Test for
pre-scores and post scores
First year t(47)
L2 0.61 / 6.52*** 0.79
L2 + 3 9.79*** 0.72
Second year t(28)
L2+ 0.39 / 2.13 /
L2 + 3 2.78* 0.28
Note:*The diﬀerence is signiﬁcant at the 0.05 level; ***the diﬀerence is signiﬁcant at the 0.001 level.
Table 3. Initial status and development of speaking proﬁciency.
T-Test for pre-scores
Paired Sample T-Test for pre-
scores and post scores
First year t(47)
L2 0.37 / 3.43** 0.52
L2 + 3 12.65*** 0.82
Second year t(28)
L2+ 0.36 / 1.64 /
L2 + 3 4.78*** 0.53
Note: **The diﬀerence is signiﬁcant at the 0.01 level; ***the diﬀerence is signiﬁcant at the 0.001 level.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION AND BILINGUALISM 9
Language learning intensity eﬀects on LA and WM
As can be seen in Table 6, a main eﬀect of language learning intensity (one- vs. two foreign
languages) was only found for the OSP task scores among the ﬁrst-year students. Descriptive statistics
show that the L2 + 3 learners scored higher than the L2 learners in the OSP task.
This eﬀect was not
found for other tasks or cohorts. The details are shown in Table 6.
This study sought to investigate the changeability of LA and WM in the context of foreign language
learning by testing diﬀerent foreign language learning groups twice, with an interval of 9 months.
The results revealed an improvement in LA and WM for all groups as well as a diﬀerence between
diﬀerent learning groups in WM capacity improvement.
The preliminary analysis on English proﬁciency conﬁrmed that the L2 and L2 + 3 learners started
from a similar proﬁciency level, which implies that any diﬀerence in gains in LA and WM found cannot
be inﬂuenced by a diﬀerence in their initial English proﬁciency level. Similarly, our analysis showed
that the L2 + 3 learners (and ﬁrst-year L2 leaners) were not merely consolidating their English but
improving signiﬁcantly, ensuring that any diﬀerence between L2 and L2 + 3 learners may be
related to actively learning 1 vs. 2 foreign languages, i.e. to language learning intensity.
The improvement in LA and WM
The ﬁrst research question investigated the changeability of LA and WM. The results showed, as was
hypothesized, a signiﬁcant increase between pre- and post-test scores. This indicates that LA and WM
Table 5. Results for main eﬀect of testing time for the second-year students.
Descriptive statistics Repeated measures ANOVA
LLAMA-B 49.33(4.19) 59.50(4.26) 7.27*0.20
LLAMA-D 39.50(2.09) 41.83(3.58) 0.59 /
LLAMA-E 76.50(3.27) 79.83(3.26) 0.71 /
LLAMA-F 49.33(4.29) 63.83(4.58) 8.35** 0.22
OSP 50.40(2.02) 54.97(2.43) 6.39*0.18
Note: *The eﬀect is signiﬁcant at the 0.05 level; **the eﬀect is signiﬁcant at the 0.01 level.
Table 6. ANCOVA results and descriptive statistics for language learning intensity eﬀect on WM among the ﬁrst-year students.
ANCOVA Descriptive statistics
Group nObserved Mean (SD) Adjusted Mean(SE)
OSP task 7.39* 0.14 L2 12 49.42(12.35) 50.65(2.98)
L2 + 3 37 60.32(9.85) 59.92(1.66)
Note: *The eﬀect is signiﬁcant at the 0.05 level.
Table 4. Results for main eﬀect of testing time for the ﬁrst-year students.
Descriptive statistics Repeated measures ANOVA
LLAMA-B 49.08(2.56) 53.47(2.98) 2.26 /
LLAMA-D 29.29(2.14) 37.55(2.26) 12.01** 0.20
LLAMA-E 62.45(3.72) 72.04(3.67) 5.90*0.12
LLAMA-F 50.10(2.72) 54.69(3.06) 1.20 /
OSP 45.88(1.90) 57.65(1.63) 35.27** 0.42
Note:*The eﬀect is signiﬁcant at the 0.05 level; **the eﬀect is signiﬁcant at the 0.01 level.
10 T. HUANG ET AL.
are changeable, and is line with the previous studies reporting a changeability of LA (Sáfár and
Kormos 2008; Sparks et al. 1996; Ma, Yao, and Zhang 2018) and WM (Klingberg 2010; Holmes, Gath-
ercole, and Dunning 2009).
Regarding the LLAMA scores, students of both cohorts improved on all subtests, but the increase
became signiﬁcant for diﬀerent subtests in the diﬀerent cohorts. This ﬁnding disproves the concern
that the improvement in LLAMA scores could be a testing eﬀect. If the improvements would consti-
tute a testing eﬀect, i.e. if the participants had developed strategies in taking the LLAMA test and
improve because of those, then the ﬁrst- and second-year students should have improved in the
same LLAMA subtests. This is, however, not the case and the improvement thus more likely results
from a development in language aptitude.
While the ﬁrst-year students signiﬁcantly improved in the sound recognition and sound-symbol
correspondence abilities (LLAMA-D and -E), the second-year students signiﬁcantly improved in voca-
bulary learning and grammar inference abilities (LLAMA-B and -F). This result resonates with Artieda
and Muñoz’s(2016) study, which demonstrated that the impact of each LA component on L2 proﬁ-
ciency diﬀers per proﬁciency level. In their study, the ability to recognize new short sound patterns in
a new language, as measured by LLAMA-D, had a larger impact on beginning L2 learners, while the
grammatical inferencing ability, as measured by LLAMA-F, had a greater eﬀect on intermediate L2
learners. We see the same pattern as a training eﬀect in our participants.
While LLAMA-D measures rather implicit cognitive processes, LLAMA-B, E, and F tap into more
explicit processes (Granena 2013). Cross-cutting this division, the LLAMA-D and LLAMA-E subtests
which the ﬁrst-year students signiﬁcantly improved on share the similarity of involving sounds.
That the ﬁrst-year students improved in LLAMA-D and LLAMA-E while the second-year students
did not may suggest that intensive language learning initially trains learners’ability to deal with unfa-
miliar sounds, both in terms of recognizing them and associating them with symbols. This seems
plausible given that learners of a new language ﬁrst have to deal with the new sounds, and learn
how to read and write them –speciﬁcally in an instructional setting as in the current study where
the students were exposed to not only spoken but also written language from the beginning, and
where the L3 learnt (Russian/Japanese) involves learning a new writing system. In that sense,
sound recognition and sound-symbol corresponding abilities are heavily involved and trained
from the start. This demand may also lie at the base of Seraﬁni and Sanz (2016)ﬁnding that it is
especially in lower L2 levels that phonological WM shows a relationship with L2 proﬁciency.
The second-year students improved in the other two abilities, i.e. vocabulary learning and
grammar inferencing (LLAMA-B and -F), while the ﬁrst-year students did not. This may indicate
that rote memory and grammar analytical abilities, which require more explicit cognitive processes,
are relatively more stable, but still changeable, although this change plays out only later.
The improvement in those aspects of LA measured by LLAMA-B, E, and F could also be related to
an enhancement in meta-linguistic awareness. According to Jessner (2014), meta-linguistic aware-
ness is the ability to focus on linguistic form as well as switch the focus between form, function
and meaning. Consequently, the development of meta-linguistic awareness is linked to explicit
and implicit learning. As Hofer and Jessner (2019) found, bilingual learners beneﬁt from higher
meta-linguistic awareness in additional language learning, compared to monolingual learners. This
may suggest that learning a second/foreign language trains learners’meta-linguistic awareness
because of the constant exposure to new linguistic forms and the need to associate new forms
with meanings, which might be a reason for the participants’better performance in rote learning,
explicit associative learning, and analytic ability found in our ﬁrst- (LLAMA-E) and second-year
(LLAMA-B and -F) students.
Regarding the WM scores, both cohorts signiﬁcantly improved, but the two cohorts improved to
diﬀerent degrees. The improvement was more pronounced among ﬁrst-year students, as revealed
both by the mean scores and the eﬀect sizes. The ﬁnding that participants in diﬀerent cohorts
and language learning groups improved in OSP scores to diﬀerent degrees dispels the doubt
whether the improvement in WM scores is merely a test-retest eﬀect.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION AND BILINGUALISM 11
Previous research had already shown that the relationship between L2 proﬁciency level and WM
capacity, as measured by the OSP task, is stronger in lower level L2 learners (Seraﬁni and Sanz 2016).
This suggests that WM is more actively engaged in the beginning stages of learning a new language.
The result in the current study is compatible with this ﬁnding in that WM is activated more, and
trained more, in the early stages of learning a new language.
The eﬀect of learning two foreign languages simultaneously on WM
Previous studies showed evidence of a positive impact of WM on the L2 learning process and out-
comes, but whether this relationship is bi-directional, and if so, what types and durations of L2 experi-
ence will contribute to an improvement in WM remained unclear (Linck et al. 2014). The second
question, therefore, addressed the eﬀect of learning two foreign languages simultaneously on LA
and WM. Such an eﬀect was found for WM, but not for LA. Moreover, the eﬀect was only found
among the ﬁrst-year learners, not the second-year learners. We may thus conclude that starting to
learn an additional foreign language aﬀords more beneﬁts to WM than merely continuing to learn
one foreign language does.
The improvement in L2 + 3 learners’WM might be due to the intensive cognitive demands placed
on them. The WM capacity measured by the OSP task in the present study is executive WM, according
to Wen’s Phonological WM/Executive WM model (PWM/EWM model; 2015,2016,2019). EWM encom-
passes executive functions such as information updating, switching and inhibition, which regulates
control processes and attention monitoring in language learning (Wen 2019; also see Miyake and
Friedman 2012). Learning two languages simultaneously demands that the learners not only
process a substantial amount of new information, which is taxing for WM capacity, but also that
they inhibit, or in a broader sense manipulate the already existing linguistic information and integrate
it with the new knowledge of the other language. More speciﬁcally, the simultaneous language lear-
ners need to shift between similar sets of linguistic representations depending on the language
context, and inhibit goal-irrelevant linguistic representations, and this part is largely dependent on
EWM. These processes may lead to a WM training eﬀect for language learners.
An analogous line of argumentation has been pursued in the literature on what is sometimes
called the ‘bilingual advantage’where some authors have found evidence of an enhanced WM in
bilinguals, particularly of those WM aspects involving executive functioning (e.g. Morales, Calvo,
and Bialystok 2013). This has been explained with the assumption that executive functioning is
engaged in sustaining and retrieving information for undergoing cognitive activities such as
language use, and may be also deployed to inhibit goal-irrelevant responses elicited by the environ-
ment (Kane et al. 2007). Our ﬁnding, however, goes beyond these earlier results by demonstrating
that the enhancement of WM found for long-time bilingual speakers might already occur at the
very ﬁrst stages of intensive multilingual language processing.
This interpretation of our ﬁndings is supported by the lack of a diﬀerence in WM improvement
between the second-year English/Russian learners and English/Japanese learners on the one hand
and the L2+ learners on the other: since the English majors also started to learn an additional
language in their second year, they were simultaneous language learners as well –albeit to a
lesser extent than the L2 + 3 majors –which could mean that this leads to a similar increase in
WM capacity in all second-year learner groups, removing the advantage of the L2 + 3 over the
English majors regarding WM training.
Our ﬁnding also contributes to answering de Bot’s(2012) question whether multilinguals have the
same amount of resources at their command as monolinguals, or whether they have more resources.
In the ﬁrst case, the resources (such as memory capacity, LA, available time and attention, among
others) would need to be distributed across diﬀerent languages, leaving fewer resources for each,
while in the second scenario language learning would be facilitated. For WM as a resource, our
results suggest that learning multiple languages does not result in less of that resource for each
12 T. HUANG ET AL.
individual language. Instead, multilinguals’resources, in this case, WM, were enhanced among ﬁrst-
year L2 + 3 learners.
Conclusion and limitations
The present study investigated whether LA and WM are changeable under the circumstance of
foreign language learning and whether there is an eﬀect of learning two foreign languages simul-
taneously on these two cognitive abilities. The results revealed that both LA and WM are change-
able, and there is a positive eﬀect of learning two foreign languages as opposed to just learning one
language on WM development at the early stages of learning a new language. This could be the
result of the constant and intensive learning of two foreign languages simultaneously, which
calls for not only taking in and maintaining new information, but also manipulating and selecting
between old and new information. Our results not only add to the small but growing body of lit-
erature that both LA and WM are not unchangeable, as traditionally was assumed, but also demon-
strate that the relationship between LA and WM on one hand and language learning on the other
hand is bi-directional: LA and WM not only aﬀect language learning, but language learning also
aﬀects LA and WM, with bi-foreign language learning exerting an especially beneﬁcial eﬀect on
A question that arises from these results and that is amenable for future studies is what amount of
simultaneous language learning experience is needed for an extra eﬀect of WM capacity enhance-
ment. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the L2 + 3 learners studied by Ma, Yao, and
Zhang (2018) performed better than L2 learners on some aspects of LA by the time they had had
60 hours of L3 instruction, which is substantially less than what our subjects had received after
one academic year (224 hours for the ﬁrst-year students, and 288 hours for the second-year students).
Apart from the above ﬁndings, there are also some limitations of the present study which could
inform future research. Firstly, some groups have a limited sample size, which may have aﬀected the
power and eﬀect sizes. Secondly, from our data, it is unclear whether the language learning eﬀect on
WM is the result of learning two foreign languages simultaneously, or the result of learning a new
foreign language per se. Thirdly, as the second-year English majors also started to learn a new
foreign language, albeit to a very limited extent, the data do not allow a conclusion of whether
this diﬀerential eﬀect on WM between learning one or two foreign languages found in the ﬁrst
year might have extended into the second year. Fourthly, LA and WM were measured only with
the LLAMA test and the OSP task, respectively. Future studies might consider using even more com-
prehensive measures such as, for example, a dedicated digit span task to test phonological WM.
Lastly, the relationship between LA and WM is of growing interest to researchers in the ﬁeld, but
the current study did not address this issue and focused solely on the changeability of the two sep-
arately. Future studies might focus on the relationship between the two and, especially, the degree to
which WM can be considered as a part of LA.
1. For all of our participants, English and –if applicable –the other foreign language were the ﬁrst- and second-
foreign language learnt, both in an instructional context and with very little extramural exposure. We have there-
fore labeled the English majors and bi-foreign-language majors as L2 and L2+3 learners, respectively. We would
like to acknowledge however that some participants might also have been growing up speaking a dialect next to
2. An ANOVA test was further carried out to conﬁrm that ﬁrst-year English/Japanese learners and English/Russian
learners did not show any signiﬁcant diﬀerence in WM gain scores.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION AND BILINGUALISM 13
This work was supported by the China Scholarship Council.
Notes on contributors
Ting Huang (MA) is a PhD student in the Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen.
Hanneke Loerts is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medical Sciences and the Faculty of Arts, University of Gronin-
gen. Her expertise is in Psycholinguistics, AppliedLinguistics, Research Methodology, Basic Statistics, Eye Tracking, Event-
Rasmus Steinkrauss is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen. His expertise is in L1 and L2
development and Usage-based/CognitiveLinguistics.
Ting Huang http://orcid.org/0000-0001-5922-0460
Hanneke Loerts http://orcid.org/0000-0001-8764-0905
Rasmus Steinkrauss http://orcid.org/0000-0002-3643-8704
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