Cornell Cognitive Studies Symposium

Statistical Learning across Cognition

Statistical Learning in Human Adults, Infants, and Nonhuman Primates: Constraints on Learning Adjacent and Nonadjacent Regularities

Elissa Newport
University of Rochester


In collaboration with Richard Aslin, I have recently been developing an approach to language acquisition known as 'statistical learning' (Newport & Aslin, 2000, and in progress). The central notions are a blend of ideas from structural linguistics (Harris, 1951) and nativist perspectives (Chomsky, 1955, 1981) with recent proposals using distributional analysis in language acquisition. Our basic proposal is that important parts of language acquisition may involve learners computing, over a corpus of speech, such things as how frequently sounds co-occur; how frequently words occur in similar contexts; and the like. These computations may then be used to determine regular versus accidental properties of the language being acquired. Our studies (initially in collaboration with Jenny Saffran) have shown that human adults and infants are capable of performing many of these computations online and with remarkable speed, during the presentation of controlled speech streams in the laboratory. We have also found that adults and infants can perform similar computations on nonlinguistic materials (e.g., music), and (in collaboration with Marc Hauser) that nonhuman primates can perform the simplest of these computations. However, when tested on more complex computations involving non-adjacent sounds, humans show strong selectivities (they can perform certain computations, but fail at others), corresponding to the patterns which natural languages do and do not exhibit. Primates are not capable of performing some of these more difficult computations. This approach may provide an important mechanism for learning certain aspects of language. In addition, the constraints of learners in performing differing types and complexities of computations may provide part of the explanation for which learners can acquire human languages, and why languages have some of the properties they have.


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