Exemplar Variability Facilitates Rapid Learning of an Otherwise Unlearnable Grammar by Individuals With Language-Based Learning Disability

J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2013 Apr;56(2):618-29. doi: 10.1044/1092-4388(2012/11-0125). Epub 2012 Sep 17.


Purpose: Even without explicit instruction, learners are able to extract information about the form of a language simply by attending to input that reflects the underlying grammar. In this study, the authors explored the role of variability in this learning by asking whether varying the number of unique exemplars heard by the learner affects learning of an artificial syntactic form.

Method: Learners with normal language (n = 16) and language-based learning disability (LLD; n = 16) were exposed to strings of nonwords that represented an underlying grammar. Half of the learners heard 3 exemplars 16 times each (low variability group), and the other half of the learners heard 24 exemplars twice each (high variability group). Learners were then tested for recognition of items heard and generalization of the grammar with new nonword strings.

Results: Only those learners with LLD who were in the high variability group were able to demonstrate generalization of the underlying grammar. For learners with normal language, both those in the high and the low variability groups showed generalization of the grammar, but relative effect sizes suggested a larger learning effect in the high variability group.

Conclusion: The results demonstrate that the structure of the learning context can determine the ability to generalize from specific training items to novel cases.

Keywords: language; language disorder; learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Female
  • Generalization, Psychological*
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Language Development*
  • Language Disorders*
  • Learning
  • Learning Disabilities*
  • Linguistics*
  • Male
  • Young Adult