The Bloomsbury Colleges | PhD Studentships | Studentships 2020 | Perceptual strategies underlying second language acquisition
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Perceptual strategies underlying second language acquisition

Principal supervisor: Dr. Adam Tierney (Birkbeck)

Co-Supervisor: Dr. Kazuya Saito (Institute of Education, University College London)

Award includes tuition fees and a stipend of £17,009 including London Weighting (at 2019/20 rates, so slightly higher for 2020 entry)

100% FTE for 3 years, from September 2020.

Project Description:

One of the most demanding aspects of learning to perceive second language speech is acquiring appropriate perceptual strategies. Learning a language requires learning which acoustic cues are most relevant to a given task, such as detecting phrase boundaries. However, languages can differ in the roles played by different acoustic dimensions. For example, in tone languages such as Mandarin, pitch is a vital cue to the meaning of words, but it plays a much more secondary role in non-tonal languages such as English. Pilot data from our laboratories has shown that Mandarin speakers place more importance on pitch and less importance on duration compared to English speakers when categorizing both linguistic phrase boundaries and musical beats. These findings suggest that learning a first language can change the salience of different perceptual dimensions, colouring the strategies developed as individuals learn new categories. Learning a second language, therefore, may require individuals to learn to direct attention to perceptual dimensions which they have grown used to neglecting.

This project will investigate two main research questions. First, the student heading the project will conduct a series of cross-sectional studies comparing native English speakers to native Mandarin speakers who recently arrived in the UK. These studies will use EEG and behavioural methods to test the hypothesis that weighting of acoustic dimensions during speech perception reflects the direction of attention to the most relevant acoustic cues. Second, a longitudinal study will attempt to train Mandarin speakers to direct attention away from pitch and towards other acoustic dimensions during speech perception, and examine the consequences of this training for participants’ ability to selectively attend to acoustic dimensions, English perception and pronunciation skills, and neural encoding of sound.

This project will provide a student with the opportunity to conduct groundbreaking interdisciplinary work, integrating cognitive neuroscience and applied linguistics research. The student will benefit from training in techniques in these two fields, including EEG experiment design and data analysis techniques as well as assessment of second language proficiency.

The student will be based at Birkbeck in the Department of Psychological Sciences, currently rated as the 5th leading Psychology department in the UK ( The student will also have associate registration at the Institute of Education.

Candidate requirements:

Candidates must have a first class or upper second undergraduate degree in a relevant scientific discipline, including but not limited to psychology, neuroscience, or linguistics. Candidates should ideally have some background in statistics, basic programming, and neuroscience. Knowledge of linguistics and/or sound processing will also be advantageous. Students will be required to undertake training in advanced quantitative methods as part of their programme, so a good grounding in quantitative analysis is an essential requirement.

Subject Areas/Keywords:

Key References:

Holt L, Tierney A, Guerra G, Laffere A, Dick F (2018) Dimension-selective attention as a possible driver of dynamic, context- dependent re-weighting in speech processing. Hearing Research, 366, 50–64.


Jasmin K, Dick F, Holt L, Tierney A (2019) Tailored perception: individuals’ speech and music perception strategies fit their perceptual abilities. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi: 10.1037/xge0000688


Kachlicka M, Saito K, Tierney A (2019) Successful language learning is tied to robust domain-general auditory processing and stable neural representation of sound. Brain and Language 192, 15-24.

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principal Supervisor: Dr. Adam Tierney,,

Co-Supervisor: Dr. Kazuya Saito,,

Further information about PhDs at Birkbeck is available from:

Application forms and details about how to apply are available from:

The online application is found here:

Please state in your form that you are applying for a Bloomsbury studentship.

Questions regarding the application process can be directed to the Departmental Administrator: Ida Akhtar, email:, Telephone 0207 631 6535

Application Requirements include a CV, cover letter, 2 academic references, an example piece of academic writing and the standard application form.

For informal queries, please contact Adam Tierney (, and include a CV and academic transcript.

Closing date for applications is:      
28 February 2020