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Implicit and explicit learning of syntactic rules

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Teresa Parodi.

It is common to refer to language acquisition as a real-world phenomenon where most learning proceeds implicitly, i.e. independently of the deliberate intention to learn and in the absence of awareness of what was learned. At the same time, however, little effort has been made, in implicit learning research, to employ stimuli that resemble natural languages more closely than the letter or tone sequences commonly found, for example, in Artificial Grammar Learning (AGL) studies. In this talk, we report the findings of a series of experiments that applied AGL methodology and awareness measurement techniques to the learning of natural language syntax.

The aims of these experiments were two-fold. Firstly, we sought to determine whether natural language syntax, in this case verb-placement rules, could be acquired implicitly, i.e. incidentally and without awareness of the learning outcome. Secondly, we aimed at exploring what role, if any, awareness plays in the acquisition of syntactic rules. For this purpose, a semi-artificial grammar, consisting of an English lexicon and German syntax, was used in order to generate the stimulus sentences. Different subject groups were trained on the grammar by means of different exposure conditions (e.g., implicit vs. explicit, auditory vs. audiovisual modes, etc.) In the testing phase, performance on a grammaticality judgment task was used a measure of learning. Awareness was assessed by means of confidence judgments, source judgments, verbal reports, and accuracy estimates.

The results of our experiments indicate that adults are able to acquire regularities of a novel language after a relatively brief exposure period, while processing sentences for meaning and under incidental learning conditions. However, whatever learning took place in the experiments was explicit. Additional research is currently being carried out in order to explore whether there are conditions under which adults can acquire syntactic rules implicitly.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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