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The role of statistical learning in early generative L2 grammars

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Christopher Lucas.

A number of recent studies have provided evidence that post-childhood L2 learners retain the ability to rapidly compute the ‘transitional probabilities’ between syllables in strings of continuous, unfamiliar linguistic material. For example, in a study by Saffran et al (1996) adult learners heard an unbroken 21 minute string of an artificial language made up of 3-syllable ‘words’ joined together in a random order. Following exposure, participants were presented with pairs of ‘words’ and ‘non-words’ and asked to ‘choose which alternative … sounded more familiar’ (Newport & Aslin 2000: 4). They were significantly better than chance at choosing the ‘words’. This ability appears to be a major component in the identification of morphemes in L2 development.

Some theories propose that such statistical learning is a pervasive feature of second language acquisition. In particular, knowledge of L2s ‘emerges’ just from computing transitional probabilities and ‘tallying’ frequencies of identified forms in the input, without need for pre-existing knowledge of linguistic properties. In contrast, generative approaches to SLA assume that an important part of acquisition is guided by pre-existing knowledge of the kinds of features and computations that make up human grammars, this coming from innate endowment (Universal Grammar).

In this talk I will assume that both statistical learning and innate linguistic knowledge play a role in early L2 acquisition. I will propose a model of how the two interact, and discuss how this model helps us understand a number of robust observations about the early acquisition of English verb morphology by L2 learners.


Newport, E. L., & Aslin, R. N. 2000: Innately constrained learning: blending old and new approaches to language acquisition. Proceedings of the 24th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development,. Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA. Vol 1, 1-21.

Saffran, J. R., Newport, E. L. & Aslin, R. N. 1996: Word segmentation: the role of distributional cues. Journal of Memory and Language 35, 606-621.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society (LingSoc) series.

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