"More than words: The role 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? This question has been the centre of much debate because of its’ implications for the question of nature vs. nurture in language learning. Previous accounts have focused on cognitive or biological differences between children and adults. In my research, I focus instead on the way prior knowledge and experience impact the linguistic units that children and adults learn from. In particular, I propose that children rely more than adults on multiword units in learning language and that this impacts learning outcomes and can help explain why adults struggle with certain aspects of language more than others. The proposal offers an additional perspective on child-adult differences by re-assessing the the basic building blocks of language. Traditionally, words are seen as the basic building blocks for language. Multiword sequences, in contrast, are thought to be generated from words and rarely treated as units. Recent years have seen a shift from this perspective with growing evidence for the role of multiword units in language learning and use. In this talk, I will present developmental, computational and psycholinguistic findings to argue that (a) multiword units are integral building blocks in language, (b) that they play an important role in first language acquisition and can facilitate learning of grammatical relations, and (c) that adults rely on them less, a pattern which can explain (some of) the differences between children and adults in language learning. I will end by presenting recent findings on the way experience impacts statistical learning in children and adults and discuss implications for models of language use and representation.