Friday, July 13, 2012

Incidental language learning: Listening (and learning) out of the corner of your ear

Saffran, J. R., Newport, E. L., Aslin, R. N., Tunick, R. A., & Barrueco, S. (1997). Psychological Science, 8, 101-105.

Language learning is incidental; that is, children learn language without being aware that they’re learning it. Humans are sensitive to the patterns they hear in language. Frequency patterns across a broad range of natural experiences are encoded incidentally, and support language learning. One way to study language learning is to teach someone an artificial language, a language they could never have learned before.

One important key to language learning is knowing when one word ends and another begins. There are lots of statistical cues available in the language that can help new language learners figure out where the words are. In particular, there is a relationship between sounds that tend to occur within or between words. For example, some sounds are more likely to occur within a word. If infants are sensitive to these patterns, they may be better at learning language.

In this study, participants listened to a stream of artificial language while focused on something else for 21 minutes. Even though the participants were not told to attend to the language, both adults and children performed above chance level at selecting items from the artificial language. After 42 minutes of exposure, performance was significantly improved and significantly greater than chance.

Despite mere minutes of listening, the complex stimuli, and importantly, the absence of instructions to attend to the artificial language, both adults and children demonstrated statistically-based learning of word boundaries. These findings suggest that incidental learning is a robust phenomenon that may play a role in natural language acquisition. The fact that children and adults did not differ in their learning of words in the artificial language gives support to the idea that early-acquired aspects of language are learned equally well by younger and older learners. Further research is needed to address questions related to the development of this ability.

Nicolette Noonan is an incoming Masters student in the Speech and Language Sciences field.