Professor Dan Dewey Receives Annual Barker Lectureship

Social interactions can be a strong force in both language learning and in life    

PROVO, Utah (Oct. 22, 2020)—Professor of linguistics Dan Dewey received the annual Barker Lectureship earlier this year; this award is given in honor of renowned scholar and former chairman of BYU’s Language Department, Dr. James L. Barker.  

Professor Dewey began his presentation by talking about his unsympathetic high school German teacher. The stressful nature of the class resulted in little motivation to develop mastery of the language.   

When it came time for him to receive his mission call, he was certain that, due to his poor performance in German, he would be called to teach in English, but, instead, he was called to the Japan Sendai mission. “Fortunately,” he noted, “my experience learning Japanese was very different from my high school German experience.”  

Thinking back on his mission, Dewey remarked, “With a combination of commitment, motivation, social support and divine help, I was able to learn the language and to communicate with the Japanese people.”   

Dewey said, “There were two ingredients to my success with Japanese. The first was motivation, and the second was social interaction”  

In Dewey’s research, “social interaction stands out as a strong predictor of second language acquisition both in and out of classroom settings.” As he has conducted studies, he has found that “the social network variables” such as closeness of relationships “were better and more consistent predictors of second language acquisition than simply number of hours of language use.”  

After detailing his previous research projects, Dewey expanded beyond language learning and spoke of social interaction with a more general application, saying, “social interaction is an important and desirable ingredient both in education and in life.”  

Dewey explained, “Our brains are socially oriented, even when we are cognitively engaged.” And by integrating social learning into education, teachers can help students perform better.  He then showed how this concept relates to our working memory, “Neurologists have found that there is a separate social working memory in our brains . . .  and that those areas may actually help us learn things better than regular, what I would call, canonical cognitive working memory.”  

Dewey firmly believes that social interaction improves the functionality of our working memory and, ultimately, helps us to learn and retain information more effectively.  

Beyond the benefits of social interaction in education, Dewey states, “Research clearly indicates that we’re better off individually in our societies when we have strong social ties with each other, and regular positive social interactions. . . . We benefit on a regular basis from positive social interactions, both in terms of mental health and physical health.”  

In regard to the reality of COVID-19 restrictions, which vastly limit our abilities to create spaces for these positive social interactions, Dewey suggested, “one concept that might be valuable for current challenges, COVID-19 specifically is social snacking.”   

Social snacking is a way to create small social experiences for ourselves that still retain the benefits of social interactions, these include, “social media use . . . watching videos of, or even imagining, friends and family . . . looking at pictures of loved ones and friends, writing letters to those people writing and reading letters from those people . . . [and] using people, animals, or even house plants as surrogates for loved ones.”   

Dewey is confident that as we “reach out, give service, and provide positive social experiences for others, . . . our brains, bodies, and our emotional health will benefit accordingly.”    

—Heather Bergeson (English ’21)