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Language experience changes subsequent learning

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Luca Onnis , Erik Thiessen
Cognition, Volume 126, Issue 2, February 2013


What are the effects of experience on subsequent learning? We explored the effects of language-specific word order knowledge on the acquisition of sequential conditional information. Korean and English adults were engaged in a sequence learning task involving three different sets of stimuli: auditory linguistic (nonsense syllables), visual non-linguistic (nonsense shapes), and auditory non-linguistic (pure tones). The forward and backward probabilities between adjacent elements generated two equally probable and orthogonal perceptual parses of the elements, such that any significant preference at test must be due to either general cognitive biases, or prior language-induced biases. We found that language modulated parsing preferences with the linguistic stimuli only. Intriguingly, these preferences are congruent with the dominantword order patterns of each language, as corroborated by corpus analyses, and are driven by probabilistic preferences. Furthermore, although the Korean individuals had received extensive formal explicit training in English and lived in an English-speaking environment, they exhibited statistical learning biases congruent with their native language. Our findings suggest that mechanisms of statistical sequential learning are implicated in language across the lifespan, and experience with language may affect cognitive processes and later learning.

Copyright © 2012 Elsevier B.V.

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About Dr. Onnis

onnisLuca Onnis is Assistant Professor in the Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research focuses on basic mechanisms underlying first and second language acquisition. One strand of his research asks whether similar mechanisms underlie language learning of different aspects of language across the lifespan. A related line of inquiry is to what degree these mechanisms are malleable and can be retrained in adults, and under what experiential conditions language acquisition is either reduced or enhanced. This is in line with recent evidence of cognitive reserve and experience-dependent brain plasticity.