The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World

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Grinstead, J. Gropen, J. Guasti, M. Hadley, P. Halle, M. Harley, H. Hart, B. Hauser, M. Hayes, B. Herrnstein, R. Hoff, E. Hornstein, N. Hudson Kam, C. Huttenlocher, J. Hyams, N. Ibbotson, P. Inagaki, S. Ionin, T. Jackendoff, R. Jelinek, F. Jiang, N. Judy, T.

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Kanno, K. Kareev, Y. Kim, Y. Kowalski, A. Krifka, M. Kroch, A. Labov, W. Lakoff, G.

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Legate, J. Levin, B. Lieven, E. Lignos, C. Lin, L. Liu, D. MacWhinney, B. Mandelbrot, B. Marchman, V. Marcus, G. Markson, L. Mazurkewich, I. McClelland, J. Miller, G. Miller, J. Miller, K. Mitchell, T. Newport, E. However, in the test phase where subjects were asked to classify novel strings as either grammatical or ungrammatical, only control participants performed better than chance. Differences between patients and controls could not be attributed to poor visual-perceptual skills or low visuo-spatial working memory in the agrammatic patients.

Thus, the results suggest that the language impairment in agrammatic aphasia is associated with impairment in non-linguistic sequence learning, indicating that domain-general neural mechanisms underlie both language and SL. Converging evidence comes from a study by Patel et al. They reviewed a large number of studies which have consistently shown that the left inferior frontal gyrus is engaged in processing of structured sequences independently of whether these are linguistic, musical, or action-related.

There is growing behavioral evidence of an association between SL and language proficiency. Conway et al. Experiment 1 revealed a positive relationship between visual SL sequences of colored squares and auditory sentence processing. Experiment 2 showed a positive relationship between auditory SL sequences of syllables embedded in pseudospeech and audiovisual sentence processing. See Misyak and Christiansen for an investigation of the link between SL and comprehension of natural language sentences in adults that reported a similar outcome: a relationship between SL and language proficiency that exists independently of cognitive motivation, short-term memory, and fluid intelligence.

The findings from these two studies suggest that SL is tapping a distinct capacity. Consistent with these findings, several studies of language impaired adults have shown poor SL, and that generalization of SL to novel cases appears to represent a particular problem for this population Plante et al.

In the study by Grunow et al. Adults without language impairment were able to learn the non-adjacent contingencies and generalize the underlying structure when variability of the middle element was high 24 unique words , but not when it was low 12 unique words. Adults with language impairment did not show any discrimination between grammatical and ungrammatical strings in either variability condition. Torkildsen et al. Half the learners were exposed to three exemplars of each of the open class elements presented 16 times each low variability condition , while the other half were exposed 24 exemplars twice high variability condition.

Learners with normal language were able to recognize trained items and generalize the grammar to novel non-word strings in both high and low variability conditions, but relative effect sizes suggested that high variability facilitated learning. In the language impaired group, only those exposed to the high variability condition were able to demonstrate generalization of the grammar.

However, many studies of adults with language impairment have only examined SL in the verbal domain, making it difficult to disentangle the effects of language impairment and a possible impairment in non-verbal SL. Examination of the link between individual differences in SL and natural language proficiency is clearly a promising endeavor; however, none of the above studies examined children. To date, only a few studies of children and adolescents have examined the relationship between language proficiency and SL.

Tomblin et al. A recent study by Conway et al. The observed correlations between sequence learning and language were especially robust for a language test measuring the ability to formulate semantically and grammatically correct spoken sentences of increasing length and complexity. The correlation between language and sequence learning was not mediated by either working memory or vocabulary knowledge.

A study by Evans et al. They used two tests of SL: i syllables in pseudospeech and ii sequences of musical tones. Children with language impairment did show SL, but required longer exposure to stimuli to learn embedded regularities. After controlling for age, SL during the short exposure condition correlated positively with receptive and expressive vocabulary in typically developing children. After controlling for age, SL during the long exposure condition was positively correlated with receptive vocabulary in children with language impairment.

SL was not correlated with IQ in either group of children. In line with Conway et al. As far as we are aware, the only study examining the relationship between an independent test of SL and syntactic acquisition in typically developing children is that reported by Kidd In this study, 4—6-year-olds were given tests of explicit word pair learning and implicit visual sequence learning in addition to a syntactic priming task.

The syntactic priming task included a test phase where children described pictures after they had been primed with a particular syntactic construction the passive form and a post-test phase where children described pictures without having been primed. The post-test phase investigated whether priming effects persevered after priming had ceased.

Results showed that performance on the implicit SL task predicted maintenance of the syntactic priming effect into the post-test phase of testing. Scores on the explicit learning task, on the other hand, did not predict priming effects. The findings reported by Kidd are consistent with comparable studies of adults such as Conway et al. A recent line of research has set out to examine exactly this question Graf Estes et al.

The infinite gift : how children learn and unlearn the languages of the world

For example, Graf Estes et al. In the first part of an experiment, month-olds were familiarized with an artificial language where transitional probabilities allowed the segmentation of four words. Next, the infants were taught two novel label-object associations where the labels were either words in the artificial language, sequences that crossed word boundaries in the artificial language part-words , or words that did not appear in the familiarized language at all non-words.

Graf Estes and colleagues found that infants who had been taught labels that were words in the familiarized speech stream were able to learn the label-object pairings, but infants who were taught part-words or non-words did not demonstrate any learning of the pairings. This result suggests that the output of the SL process can function as input to subsequent word learning. Mirman et al. However, the authors found a difference between infants and adults in the dynamics between statistical segmentation and word learning. In contrast to infants, who could not learn label-object mappings for part-words or non-words they had not been familiarized with, adults learned words in all three conditions, but were faster in acquiring non-words and familiarized words than part-words.

This latter finding suggests that for adults SL has an inhibitory role in hindering the learning of novel meanings for labels that violate learned transitional probabilities part-words , while for infants SL has a facilitative role in assisting the mapping of labels to novel meanings when labels are consistent with learned transitional probabilities. Evidence pointing in this direction is not restricted to the area of word learning.

A recent study of the acquisition of morphosyntax shows that the non-adjacent dependencies which have the most advantageous distributional patterns are the ones that infants first show evidence of knowing when tested with headturn preference procedures van Heugten and Johnson, Thus, there is reason to believe that the output from SL mechanisms is used at various levels of linguistic analysis both by infants and children.

Second-language acquisition L2 learning is different from first-language L1 learning in a number of critical ways. Still, it is possible that the detection of statistical regularities plays a role in L2 acquisition. Interestingly, a recent study of adolescents demonstrated a significant positive relationship between implicit SL and second language learning of French and German Kaufman et al.

We do not know of any research that has examined SL in infants living in bilingual environments or any studies that have examined a link between a capacity for SL and proficiency of L2 acquisition; although, it would seem worthwhile to pursue these avenues in future research. Both reading and spelling involve learning the correspondences between arbitrary visual symbols and the linguistically meaningful sounds of a language. In English the mapping between letters and sounds can be thought of as probabilistic e.

Children are taught explicitly about some of these mappings and rightly so. Clearly, they are not taught about every single correspondence and contextual cue in English. Surely, that would be impossible. Arciuli has examined probabilistic cues to lexical stress contained within orthography. Adults are sensitive to these probabilities. The computational modeling component of the study by Arciuli et al. Connectionist models operate on the statistical regularities present in the input to which they are exposed.

In these models learning occurs via adjustment of the weights on connections between units in order to approximate a target response. Importantly, connectionist models can be trained iteratively enabling us to explore developmental trajectories based on age-appropriate input. Thus, connectionist models embody the principle of SL. For many years cognitive scientists have contrasted connectionist approaches where a system learns regularities with an alternative approach where pre-determined rules are utilized. For example, Rastle and Coltheart reported on a rule-based algorithm for stress assignment as part of the dual-route cascaded model of reading that was designed to simulate the reading aloud of disyllabic non-words.

The algorithm involved searching through the letter string of a non-word for morphemes to identify a specified set of affixes: 54 prefixes and suffixes , and then consulted a database for information concerning whether each morpheme carried stress or not e. How might children learn what constitutes a prefix and what constitutes a suffix?

Chapter Summaries

How might children end up with a store of knowledge pertaining to whether affixes carry lexical stress or not? More recent instantiations of the dual-route model of the reading aloud of polysyllables have incorporated connectionist principles e. The debate about rules versus statistics and whether some kind of hybrid system might best for explaining language acquisition continues Newport, Connectionist modeling has a central role in this debate.

According to the MOM hypothesis language is acquired via both rule-based and statistical mechanisms. Some researchers have used under performance of a connectionist model in simulating human data as evidence in favor of MOM Endress and Bonatti, while others have used connectionist modeling to directly rebuke such claims Laakso and Calvo, Using the stimuli and silent reading task from Arciuli and Cupples they demonstrated that adolescents with autism lack sensitivity to these cues.

There was no requirement to produce individual words, so it seems unlikely that motor explanations can account for this finding. Arciuli and Paul suggested that this lack of attunement may be related more generally to impaired SL. More research is needed to clarify whether SL is impaired in autism.

In keeping with what we know about variability of SL in typically developing individuals e. This may explain why some group studies find impaired SL in autism while others do not. It may be that some children with autism are not sensitive to the kinds of social cues that support SL see also Tomasello, Arciuli and Simpson b examined the relationship between SL and reading aloud in typically developing children and healthy adults. SL was assessed using sequences of visually presented items, a variation of the triplet-learning paradigm. Reading accuracy was assessed using a standardized test of single word reading.

The data revealed a significant positive relationship between SL and reading proficiency in children and also in adults, even after age and attention were taken into consideration. Neither phonological working memory nor non-verbal IQ mediated the relationship between SL and reading ability. Presumably, a capacity for SL could facilitate the acquisition of written language directly there are many statistical regularities in written language as well as indirectly via links with oral language proficiency it is well known that reading and spelling ability is closely related to oral language ability.

Solid progress has been made in supplying the kind of empirical evidence required to demonstrate that SL plays a role in language acquisition. Especially helpful in this regard are recent studies that have shown a link between performance on a test of SL and performance on a test of language proficiency, as well as studies demonstrating how infants and adults use the output of the SL process in subsequent lexical acquisition. We have now reached a point where longitudinal research is needed to assist in furthering the language acquisition debate.

Longitudinal studies cannot prove causality, but they are a vital step in exploring the nature of a relationship once an association between variables has been discovered, and a necessary step before intervention studies targeted at those with impairments can be considered. While we know of no previous studies which have investigated a direct link between SL and later language outcomes, there are longitudinal studies showing that speech segmentation, phonological discrimination, and non-linguistic auditory processing abilities during the first year of life, abilities which may be associated with SL, predict later language outcomes Newman et al.


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There are also longitudinal studies of toddlers in their second or third years demonstrating that lexical processing skills in meaningful contexts predict later language outcomes. These findings demonstrate that longitudinal research beginning in the first or second year has great potential for investigating the influence of various cognitive abilities on language development. However, such longitudinal studies present a number of challenges. Since longitudinal studies are costly and time-consuming, many researchers are forced to keep the data collection period as short as possible, over only a year or two.

Certainly, longitudinal research will need to investigate SL in relation to acquisition in different linguistic domains e. Ideally, behavioral studies tapping SL and linguistic knowledge at developmentally significant ages need to be combined with corpus analyses to obtain a realistic picture of the input that children receive.

This kind of research can be used in conjunction with computational models and neuroimaging to explore possible mechanisms that give rise to developmental changes in behavior.


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  • Longitudinal investigation of whether early SL ability is related to later language proficiency is an important step toward the design of intervention studies which in turn can be used to examine causality. These studies indicate that the structure of the learning context can determine whether a particular grammar is learned and generalized. This is an especially relevant finding, given that failure to generalize learning has been identified as a significant problem for those with impaired language.

    In sum, it has been well established that many infants, children, adolescents, and adults are equipped with highly efficient abilities to detect statistical regularities in input. Recent research has brought the knowledge that humans use the output from these statistical mechanisms in language acquisition and that individual differences in SL are related to language proficiency. Longitudinal studies are needed to determine the extent to which SL contributes to the transition from non-linguistic infant to fully fledged language user in typically developing individuals and the extent to which impaired SL presents challenges for those with disorders such as autism, SLI, and dyslexia.

    The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Journal List Front Psychol v. Front Psychol. Learning with Lattice-Structured Hypothesis Spaces. Theoretical Computer Science , , October Sentence and Word Complexity. Science , , July Oxford studies in comparative syntax.

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