Monday, January 21, 2013

Learning Non-Adjacent Regularities at Age 0;7

Gervain, J., & Werker, J.F. (In press). Learning non-adjacent regularities at age 0;7. Journal of Child Language, DOI:10.1017/S0305000912000256

The ability to learn rules is an important part of language learning. Infants have been found to be able to learn certain regularities involving both adjacent repetitions (e.g., ‘wo fe fe’) and non-adjacent repetitions (e.g., ‘wo fe wo’). This study compared learning of adjacent and non-adjacent repetitions in 7-month old infants to examine evidence that these patterns are processed differently in the brain.

In each of two experiments, infants completed a test phase: the infant heard a ‘word’ that either followed a pattern (e.g., adjacent repetition) or had no pattern (e.g., ‘wo fe  ga’) at the same time they looked to a light. If the infant noticed, or was familiar with, the pattern of the word being played, the infant would look away quickly. If the word being played was novel, the infant would look longer. A ‘looking time difference’ would show that the infant discriminated the pattern from the novel words. In Experiment 1, there was a familiarization phase: the infants heard words that followed the pattern (e.g., adjacent repetition) for 2 minutes prior to the test phase. In Experiment 2, the infant completed the test phase only with no familiarization phase.

Infants showed a ‘looking time difference’ for both adjacent and non-adjacent repetitions in Experiment 1 with the familiarization phase, but not Experiment 2. There were no differences in learning across trials for adjacent or non-adjacent repetitions.  These results indicate that the infants learned the relevant rule during the familiarization phase in Experiment 1. There was no evidence of a different learning mechanism for adjacent vs. non-adjacent repetitions, though more research at other stages of development is needed.

The findings provide further evidence of the importance of pattern learning in language acquisition. Children with language impairment may need more explicit (‘meta’) strategies to notice/learn linguistics patterns/rules.

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