Young children face two problems when learning a language. One, they need to know which sounds group together to form words, and what these words mean. Two, they need to know how these words go together in sentences.
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These problems are interwoven, because to be able to acquire the meaning of words the child also needs to know what role they play in the sentence: is the word “teddy” about a thing, or what the thing is doing, or something else? And to figure out what a word’s role is, the child needs to already know what it means.
Professor Patrick Rebuschat likens these two problems to the chicken-and-egg problem. In this case, “which comes first, the word or the sentence?”
To find out, the researchers tested how people learned new words and [sentences] by giving adults an artificial language to learn. They invented a language spoken by aliens and showed people sentences in alien language alongside scenes showing aliens carrying out different actions.
Over time, learners were able to acquire the words’ meanings and their roles in the scenes — the names of the aliens, their colours, and the actions they were doing.
Learners do this by keeping track of all the associations between words and different aspects of the scenes across many learning trials before narrowing down to focus on those associations that are reliable.
In other words, we learn sentences and words at the same time.
Learn more about this study over at Neuroscience News.
(Image Credit: athree23/ Pixabay)