The role of input variability in language learning and generalization: Evidence from language training studies with child learners

26th October 2020 : 17:00 - 18:00

Category: Public Seminar

Speaker: Dr Elizabeth Wonnacott, Department of Education

Location: Online - Microsoft Teams Live

Convener: Victoria Murphy

Audience: Department Staff and Students



Learning a first or second language involves generalization.

According to statistical learning approaches, generalization is driven by the input. For example, if a set of words occurs in the same set of linguistic environments, learners may use this as evidence that these words form a syntactic category within that language. Much of the evidence for this work comes from artificial language experiments which are generally conducted with adult learners (Reeder & Newport 2014), although the authors make inferences from these data as to the processes involved in child language acquisition. In contrast, there has been relatively little experimental work directly exploring children’s ability to use distributional statistics.

Dr Liz Wonnacott will present data from three different experiments in which primary school aged children (5-8years) are exposed to, and tested on, some new linguistic construction under experimental conditions. Specifically, she has explored: (1) learning a novel word order within the L1; (2) learning gender classes in an L2 (English children learning Italian); (3) learning preposition constructions in a L2 (English children learning Japanese). She finds evidence that, in some circumstances, children’s generalization depends upon witnessing sufficiently varied exemplars in their input, presumably because this allows them to dissociate the structures from the particular trained instances (Bybee 1995; Ramscar et al. 2010). However there are also important interactions with input complexity, so that input variability may actually decrease performance when learning from the relatively small amount of input which can be provided in an experiment (or, perhaps, a classroom).

About the speaker

Prior to coming to the Department of Education, Liz held positions as an Associate Professor in the Division of Language Sciences at UCL and an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Warwick.

She was previously at Oxford as a Junior Research Fellow housed in the Department of Experimental Psychology and Linacre College. Her degrees are in Linguistics and Artificial Intelligence (University of Edinburgh; MA Hons) and Brain and Cognitive Sciences (University of Rochester, USA; MSc & PhD). Between her degrees, she worked briefly as Teacher of English to students of other languages.

Find out more about Liz here