A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that the eyes can become a useful basis in determining how well non-native English speakers understand English when they use it as a second language. The findings of this study can lead to the development of a new way to tell if people really understand a new language. It can also help gauge how well they are learning it.
The study was conducted by MIT researchers Yevgeni Berzak, Boris Katz, and Roger Levy. Berzak is a postdoc in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences of MIT. Katz is the chief of MIT’s InfoLab Group and is one of the noted principal research scientists in the institute. Levy, on the other hand, is a director at the Computational Psycholinguistics Lab of the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
This study is detailed in a paper called “Assessing Language Proficiency from Eye Movements in Reading.” It is partly supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and by the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines of MIT. The paper has been published in the Proceedings of the 16th Annual Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association of Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies.
How the study was conducted
For the study, records from the work previously conducted by Berzak were examined. This previous work by Berzak enlisted 145 volunteers who were students learning English as a second language and 37 native English speakers. The volunteers learning a second language were divided into four groups based on the native languages they spoke: Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese.
Berzak’s previous study gathered records of eye movements of the volunteers who were made to read texts in English. There were asked to read 156 sentences, which had half of them constituting the “fixed test” wherein everyone was made read the same sentences. Their eye movements were then recorded on video and analyzed.
The study (“Assessing Language Proficiency from Eye Movements in Reading”) assigned an “EyeScore” for each participant who was made to read the 156 sentences. This score was based on how the participants’ eyes reacted to the words they were reading, as they were observed to intensively focus their sight on certain words. There were specific focus durations or patterns in their eye movements noted as they went along reading the sentences they were asked to read.
The EyeScore is anchored on how the eye movement patterns of English as a second language learners compare to those of native English speakers. Higher scores are given to those whose eye movement patterns were closely matched to the eye movement patterns of those who speak fluent English (as their first language). As mentioned, the study used a group of people who were learning English as a second language as well as a group of native English speakers.
After evaluating the EyeScore of the participants in the study, the researchers found a direct correlation (of the EyeScore results) with the Michigan English Test as well as the TOEFL or the Test of English as a Foreign Language. This led the researchers to conclude that EyeScore can be used as a metric for gauging language proficiency as it appeared to generate results that were comparable to those of standardized English proficiency tests.
The authors of the study consider this as the initial proof of concept that can be used to develop a system based on eye tracking for the evaluation of linguistic ability. It can bring about the development of a formal system that can be used alongside other language proficiency tests or as a standalone test.
Berzak, for his part, says that eye movement tends to reveal language proficiency to a large extent based on how the EyeScore can be measured against standardized test benchmarks. He thinks that eye movement data obtained while a person is reading is “very rich and very informative.”
Dissecting the illusion of continuity
Studying eye movements while reading is like an attempt to dig deep into the illusion of continuity in reading. There’s this phenomenon in reading wherein eye movements actually fluctuate depending on what is being read, something that hardly anyone notices and nobody may have noticed if not for the study conducted by Berzak.
As Berzak’s dataset revealed, the eyes do not move continuously upon reading a line of texts. The eyes don’t smoothly and continuously pass over words. What happens is that the eyes focus on certain words for up to 250 milliseconds. Likewise, the eyes tend to jump from one word to another for a duration of about a twentieth of a second.
According to Roger Levy, one of the three researchers, the eyes are leaping around, usually forward and occasionally backward. The brain then stitches together the information the eyes obtain and creates the illusion of a smooth and continuous reading experience. Levy says this is a demonstration of the mind’s ability to trick itself, to produce illusions.
Things are a little different, though, when it comes to learning a new language.When reading texts in a new language in particular, the eyes may dwell longer on certain words as the reader takes slightly more time to understand them or to try recalling what they mean. The eye movements of those who use English as a second or as a new language can reveal patterns that reflect their level of comprehension of the language.
To emphasize, the findings of the research present a novel approach in measuring a person’s second language proficiency. As described by the researchers, this approach can provide standalone English proficiency scores based on eye-tracking data. This may introduce a new way to evaluate the English proficiency of immigrants entering the United States, especially in light of recent immigration policy changes in the country.
The EyeScore can serve as an objective and reliable way to test English proficiency, which can be used alongside written and spoken tests. It can even be better than written tests since it’s not possible to use a test “leak” to prepare for it. Eye movements when reading tend to be instinctive and may not be faked to imitate the eye movements of native English speakers.
Using reading eye movement tests to evaluate English proficiency might be an overkill for immigration screening, though. It entails additional costs and may not produce significant benefits. As mentioned in the description of the research, the EyeScore only shows strong correlation with standardized tests for English proficiency. Hence, it only predicts the results of such proficiency tests or affirms these results. It’s farfetched for it to become a replacement for the written tests for English proficiency.
Perhaps, it would be more applicable in the scrutiny of those who are expected to perform special language services. Providers of translation services including those working in the government, for example, can employ the EyeScore approach to ascertain that the translators they are getting are truly proficient or fluent in the foreign languages they are specializing in.
It would be great if the study included information on the cost of doing the test. The cost factor is certainly something that will be considered by users in deciding whether or not to adopt this test. The EyeScore can be used to evaluate how students are learning a new language. Language learning schools may want to consider using it as it can help them scrutinize in-depth the learning progress of students and implement pedagogical changes to achieve better learning results.
The findings of this study opens new questions that are worth exploring. Boris Katz, one of the researchers, notes that the human reading ability exemplifies the “amazing plasticity” of the brain, pointing out that humans only started processing written texts in the last several millennia. This sounds like a long time ago but it actually does not compare to the time when humans started demonstrating learning skills. Katz thinks the bigger question in all of these is how language affects the human brain.
Roger Levy, on the other hand, thinks that their eye test study can be extended beyond 156 sentences to explore more potential new information about human intelligence. It can be made more specific so experts can come up with more definitive judgments concerning even smaller strings of texts.
Levy is optimistic of the possibility that in the future, a person’s understanding of written texts can be determined on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Through the eye movement test, it may be possible to gauge how well someone understands a sentence by monitoring the movements of the eyes while a person is made to read a sentence.
Incorporating eye movement tracking in English proficiency gauging is a good demonstration of how technology improves various things or processes. Hopefully, this is something that can be done cheaply, with just a smartphone and a special app for example, so it can be adopted by more users.
It’s a welcome development seeing technology getting integrated in second language proficiency evaluation. If you are looking for language services that are reliable and accurate, you can rely on Day Translations, Inc. We provide superb translation, interpretation, localization, and other language services worldwide, 24/7.
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