The 22nd Session of Zijin Lectures: Dr. Helen ZHAO Lectured on Second Language Acquisition


Held on Tencent Meeting on December 15, the 22nd session of Zijin Lectures was given by Dr. Helen ZHAO, who studies second language acquisition at the University of Melbourne. Entitled “Image schematic diagrams and second language processing of English prepositions”, the lecture covered a wide range of topics from everyday activities, to scientific issues, psychological mechanisms, and pedagogical approaches. The two-hour-long lecture was hosted by Prof. YANG Jing, attracting students and teachers from some universities in China.  

To start with, Dr. ZHAO situated image schematic diagrams (ISD) in daily life, before introducing its definition, applications in linguistics, psychological reality, and related psychological mechanisms. A concept proposed by linguists as it is, schematic diagrams hold psychological reality due to the key mechanism of mental simulation in language processing. On the basis of a literature review on the key issues, paradigms, and major findings in ISD-informed first- and second-language research, Dr. ZHAO pointed out the gaps in ISD-informed studies on second language acquisition.

Figure 1. Research Background: Image Schema


Dr. ZHAO then gave an elaborate presentation on the latest achievements her team had accomplished by applying ISD to the fields of theoretical mechanisms and second language acquisition. By focusing on the ISD of spatial prepositions such as “in” and “over”, she attempts to understand (1) if there is mental simulation in the minds of second language learners when processing English propositions, and (2) what factors have impact on the mental simulation.

       In the first study, Dr. ZHAO compares the mental simulation of native speakers and second language learners, by assessing the different levels of conceptual abstraction, the relevance, and the timespan of diagram stimulation in a phrasal decision priming task. It is found that the performance of native speakers is influenced by the rationality of phrases, while that of second language learners is constrained by their language proficiency; both native speakers and second language learners spend less time processing abstract concepts than spatial concepts. It turns out that the mental simulation stimulated by schematic diagrams on the one hand aids language procession of native speakers, while on the other hand impedes that of second language learners.

Figure 2. The phrasal decision priming task stimulated by ISD (in the first study)

The second study concerns the issues of how schematic diagrams help second language learners comprehend propositions, and how conceptual structures are encoded within the language system. Employing EEG as its methodology, the experiment is designed as follows: the subjects are divided randomly into two groups, where they learn propositions with either true-or-false feedback or additional schema-based feedback. It is found that low-level learners perform remarkably better with schema-based feedback, which serves to testify the significance of quality learning feedback for low-level second language learners.

Figure 3. The schema-based feedback to subjects who gave false answers (in the second study)

       In the final Q&A section, Dr. ZHAO offered detailed answers to questions raised by the attending students and teachers. The dialogues also sparkled heated discussions on second language learning, propositional phrases, second language learning and teaching. The lecture was concluded with Dr. ZHAO expressing her gratitude and others applauding for her speech.




Study 1

Wang, M. H., & Zhao, H. (2022). Schematic diagrams in the processing of English prepositional phrases. Paper presented at the ALANZ conference, New Zealand.


Study 2

Zhao, H., Huang, S., Zhou, Y., & Wang, R. (2020). Schematic diagrams in the second language learning of English prepositions: A behavioural and event-related potential study. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 42(4), 721-748. Doi: 10.1017/S027226311900069X


Zijin Society, SIS

Institute of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics in Foreign Languages

December 20, 2022


Translated by CAI Zhengwu

Proofread by XU Xueying



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