Starting Big: The importance of multiword units in language learning and use

Why are children better language learners than adults despite being worse at a range of other cognitive tasks? Understanding this can shed new light on the process of first language acquisition and how it differs from that of second language learning, while also providing us with additional tools for teaching second languages effectively. Many accounts focus on the cognitive or neurological differences between children and adults, which are in many ways irreversible. In my work, I focus instead on the way prior knowledge impacts the linguistic building blocks that children and adults use during learning, and how those early building blocks impact learning outcomes. I propose and test the Starting Big Hypothesis: that children rely on both single words and multiword units during learning, while adults do so less (because of their prior knowledge of words), and that this difference can explain (some of) adults’ difficulty in learning the grammatical relations between words. I draw on developmental, psycholinguistic and computational findings to show that multiword units are integral building blocks in language; that such units are facilitative for learning certain grammatical relations; and that adult learners rely on them less than children, a pattern that can explain differences between L1 and L2 learning. I will end by presenting recent findings on the possible role of whole-to-part processes more generally in the emergence of linguistic structure and in explaining the uniqueness of human language.

Professor Arnon is a linguist and developmental psycholinguist. Her main interests are first language acquisition, learning theory, psycholinguistics, and the differences between first and second language learning. She has a BA in linguistics from Tel-Aviv University (Summa cum Laude), an MSc in psycholinguistics from the University of Edinburgh (with distinction), and a PhD in Linguistics from Stanford University. Her research lies at the intersection of Linguistics, Psychology, and Cognitive Science and uses a variety of experimental methods to explore how language is learned and how learning changes as a function of prior knowledge and experience.

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