Language learners privilege structured meaning over surface frequency

Jennifer Culbertson, David Adger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Although it is widely agreed that learning the syntax of natural languages involves acquiring structure-dependent rules, recent work on acquisition has nevertheless attempted to characterize the outcome of learning primarily in terms of statistical generalizations about surface distributional information. In this paper we investigate whether surface statistical knowledge or structural knowledge of English is used to infer properties of a novel language under conditions of impoverished input. We expose learners to artificial-language patterns that are equally consistent with two possible underlying grammars—one more similar to English in terms of the linear ordering of words, the other more similar on abstract structural grounds. We show that learners’ grammatical inferences overwhelmingly favor structural similarity over preservation of superficial order. Importantly, the relevant shared structure can be characterized in terms of a universal preference for isomorphism in the mapping from meanings to utterances. Whereas previous empirical support for this universal has been based entirely on data from cross-linguistic language samples, our results suggest it may reflect a deep property of the human cognitive system—a property that, together with other structure-sensitive principles, constrains the acquisition of linguistic knowledge.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5842-5847
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
Issue number16
Early online date31 Mar 2014
Publication statusPublished - 22 Apr 2014

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • learning biases
  • typology
  • artificial grammar learning
  • semantic scope
  • transitional probabilities


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