Starting Big: The role of multiword units in first and second language learning (ISF 527-12, BSF 2011107)
Why are children better language learners than adults despite being worse at a range of other cognitive tasks? This project offers a new perspective on this long-standing question by highlighting the differential role of multiword units in child and adult language learning. In a nutshell, we propose that children are better at certain aspects of language learning because they learn from larger and less-analyzed units: while children utilize multiword units (like I-don't-know) in the learning process, adults will tend to learn from individual words – a tendency that will hinder learning of certain grammatical relations (Arnon, 2010). As part of this project, we’ve shown that children rely on multiword information in processing (Arnon & Clark, 2011); that such units serve as building blocks in learning (Arnon, McCauley & Christiansen, 2017); and that they can facilitate learning of certain grammatical relations in adult learners (Arnon & Ramscar, 2012; Siegelman & Arnon, 2015).
Together with Stewart M. McCauley & Morten H. Christiansen, we recently published a paper in the Journal of Memory and Language documenting Age-of-Acquisition effects for multiword phrases.
The developmental trajectory of statistical learning
The developmental trajectory of statistical learning (ISF funding 2016-2020)
Infants, children and adults are capable of extracting recurring patterns from their environment through statistical learning (SL), an implicit learning mechanism that is considered to have an important role in language acquisition. Research over the past twenty years has shown that SL is present from very early infancy and found in a variety of tasks and across modalities. While SL is well established for infants and adults, little is known about its developmental trajectory during childhood, leaving several important questions unanswered.
The proposed research aims to examine two major issues that have significant theoretical implications for our understanding of SL and that have been under-studied to date. The first is the nature of age-related changes in SL: does SL improve with age, like many other cognitive capacities, or is it an early-maturing capacity that does not change after infancy? The second is the nature of individual differences in SL: does SL vary between children, and if so, what are the sources and consequences of such variation for language learning?
New paper out on the reliability of statistical learning tasks among children (Arnon, 2019).
Studying the emergence of linguistic structure in the lab
Experimental work in the field of language evolution suggests that cultural transmission can lead to the emergence of linguistic structure as speakers’ weak individual biases become amplified through iterated learning (Kirby et al. 2008). Interestingly, there is little evidence for similar patterns in children, despite such evidence being crucial for evaluating the role of learning biases in the emergence of linguistic structure since children are the most frequent learners in the actual process of cultural transmission and have been claimed to play a unique role in the emergence of structure. In this project, we use a novel child-friendly ILM paradigm (Raviv & Arnon, 2016) to explore the emergence of structure in child learners.