Getting It Right by Getting It Wrong: When Learners Change Languages

Cogn Psychol. 2009 Aug;59(1):30-66. doi: 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2009.01.001. Epub 2009 Mar 25.

Abstract

When natural language input contains grammatical forms that are used probabilistically and inconsistently, learners will sometimes reproduce the inconsistencies; but sometimes they will instead regularize the use of these forms, introducing consistency in the language that was not present in the input. In this paper we ask what produces such regularization. We conducted three artificial language experiments, varying the use of determiners in the types of inconsistency with which they are used, and also comparing adult and child learners. In Experiment 1 we presented adult learners with scattered inconsistency - the use of multiple determiners varying in frequency in the same context - and found that adults will reproduce these inconsistencies at low levels of scatter, but at very high levels of scatter will regularize the determiner system, producing the most frequent determiner form almost all the time. In Experiment 2 we showed that this is not merely the result of frequency: when determiners are used with low frequencies but in consistent contexts, adults will learn all of the determiners veridically. In Experiment 3 we compared adult and child learners, finding that children will almost always regularize inconsistent forms, whereas adult learners will only regularize the most complex inconsistencies. Taken together, these results suggest that regularization processes in natural language learning, such as those seen in the acquisition of language from non-native speakers or in the formation of young languages, may depend crucially on the nature of language learning by young children.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language Development*
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Multilingualism*
  • Psycholinguistics