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Trends Cogn Sci. 2000 May;4(5):178-186.

Infant artificial language learning and language acquisition.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218-2685, USA.


The rapidity with which children acquire language is one of the mysteries of human cognition. A view held widely for the past 30 years is that children master language by means of a language-specific learning device. An earlier proposal, which has generated renewed interest, is that children make use of domain-general, associative learning mechanisms. However, our current lack of knowledge of the actual learning mechanisms involved during infancy makes it difficult to determine the relative contributions of innate and acquired knowledge. A recent approach to studying this problem exposes infants to artificial languages and assesses the resulting learning. In this article, we review studies using this paradigm that have led to a number of exciting discoveries regarding the learning mechanisms available during infancy. These studies raise important issues with respect to whether such mechanisms are general or specific to language, the extent to which they reflect statistical learning versus symbol manipulation, and the extent to which such mechanisms change with development. The fine-grained characterizations of infant learning mechanisms that this approach permits should result in a better understanding of the relative contributions of, and the dynamic between, innate and learned factors in language acquisition.

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