Constraints on Statistical Language Learning

  • Saffran J
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How do learners discover the structure in linguistic input? One set of cues which learners might use to acquire phrase structure are the dependencies, or predictive relationships, which link elements within phrases. In order to determine whether learners can use this statistical information, adults and children were exposed to artificial languages that either contained or violated the kinds of dependencies that characterize natural languages. Additional experiments contrasted the acquisition of these linguistic systems with the same grammars implemented as non- linguistic input (sequences of nonlinguistic sounds or shapes). Predictive relationships yielded better learning for sequentially presented auditory stimuli, and for simultaneously presented visual stimuli, but no such advantage was found for sequentially presented visual stimuli. Learning outcomes were not affected by the degree to which the input contained linguistic content. These findings suggest that constraints on learning mechanisms that mirror the structure of natural languages are not tailored solely for language learning. Implications for theories of language acquisition and perceptual learning are discussed. ©

Author-supplied keywords

  • language
  • phrase structure
  • statistical learning
  • syntax

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  • J. R. Saffran

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