Learning at a distance II. Statistical learning of non-adjacent dependencies in a non-human primate

Cogn Psychol. 2004 Sep;49(2):85-117. doi: 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2003.12.002.


In earlier work we have shown that adults, infants, and cotton-top tamarin monkeys are capable of computing the probability with which syllables occur in particular orders in rapidly presented streams of human speech, and of using these probabilities to group adjacent syllables into word-like units. We have also investigated adults' learning of regularities among elements that are not adjacent, and have found strong selectivities in their ability to learn various kinds of non-adjacent regularities. In the present paper we investigate the learning of these same non-adjacent regularities in tamarin monkeys, using the same materials and familiarization methods. Three types of languages were constructed. In one, words were formed by statistical regularities between non-adjacent syllables. Words contained predictable relations between syllables 1 and 3; syllable 2 varied. In a second type of language, words were formed by statistical regularities between non-adjacent segments. Words contained predictable relations between consonants; the vowels varied. In a third type of language, also formed by regularities between non-adjacent segments, words contained predictable relations between vowels; the consonants varied. Tamarin monkeys were exposed to these languages in the same fashion as adults (21 min of exposure to a continuous speech stream) and were then tested in a playback paradigm measuring spontaneous looking (no reinforcement). Adult subjects learned the second and third types of language easily, but failed to learn the first. However, tamarin monkeys showed a different pattern, learning the first and third type of languages but not the second. These differences held up over multiple replications, using different sounds instantiating each of the patterns. These results suggest differences among learners in the elementary units perceived in speech (syllables, consonants, and vowels) and/or the distance over which such units can be related, and therefore differences among learners in the types of patterned regularities they can acquire. Such studies with tamarins open interesting questions about the perceptual and computational capacities of human learners that may be essential for language acquisition, and how they may differ from those of non-human primates.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cognition
  • Female
  • Language
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Phonetics
  • Psycholinguistics / statistics & numerical data*
  • Psychological Theory
  • Saguinus
  • Speech Perception
  • Vocabulary