Developmental constraints on learning artificial grammars with fixed, flexible and free word order
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Human learning, although highly flexible and efficient, is constrained in ways that facilitate or impede the acquisition of certain systems of information. Some such constraints, active during infancy and childhood, have been proposed to account for the apparent ease with which typically developing children acquire language. In a series of experiments, we investigated the role of developmental constraints on learning artificial grammars with a distinction between shorter and relatively frequent words (‘function words,’ F-words) and longer and less frequent words (‘content words,’ C-words). We constructed 4 finite-state grammars, in which the order of F-words, relative to C-words, was either fixed (F-words always occupied the same positions in a string), flexible (every F-word always followed a C-word), or free. We exposed adults (N = 84) and kindergarten children (N = 100) to strings from each of these artificial grammars, and we assessed their ability to recognize strings with the same structure, but a different vocabulary. Adults were better at recognizing strings when regularities were available (i.e., fixed and flexible order grammars), while children were better at recognizing strings from the grammars consistent with the attested distribution of function and content words in natural languages (i.e., flexible and free order grammars). These results provide evidence for a link between developmental constraints on learning and linguistic typology.