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School of Languages, Linguistics and Film

Guest Speaker Seminar Series | Jennifer Culbertson (Edinburgh)

When: Wednesday, November 24, 2021, 4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Where: Zoom,, password (if needed): 046850

We are happy to welcome Jennifer Culbertson (Edinburgh), for the first Guest Speaker Seminar talk of the year.


What failures of statistical learning tell us about language


Abstract: Statistical learning is a powerful, domain-general mechanism for tracking distributional regularities. While it is now well-established that both children and adults can use statistical learning to build linguistic knowledge, apparent failures of statistical learning provide a window into features of our cognitive system that shape language. In this talk I focus on three cases in which distributional or statistical regularities appear to be systematically under-utilised by adult and child learners. In the first, I report the results of a series of artificial language learning studies across age groups and L1s providing evidence for a bias in favour of word order harmony. This bias is revealed when learners fail to reproduce--in some cases quite dramatically--the word order patterns present in their input. These failures of statistical learning, present in the early stages of acquisition, shed light on the possible mechanism by which soft constraints on learning shape language over generations; the same patterns learners prefer are over-represented among the world's languages. In the second case, I present an even more dramatic case, wherein learners systematically favour typologically common word and morpheme orders even when there is no relevant input at all. In the final case, I discuss another hypothesised cognitive bias, claimed to affect learning of grammatical gender systems. I show that apparent failure of statistical learning in this case is at least in part a reflection of how the input is structured, and what information is exploited in the early stages of learning. These three cases illustrate how language acquisition can be affected in surprising ways by the input, the intake, and general features of human cognition.


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