In the article, "Language Learners Privilege Structured Meaning Over Surface Frequency," published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this month, linguists Jennifer Culbertson and David Adger show that English speakers transfer structure-based rather than surface-based knowledge of English to a new language they are learning. For example, when trained on a novel language which places words like adjectives and numbers after the noun (e.g., “hat blue” and “shoes two”), they will implicitly assume that adjectives should precede numerals. In other words when asked to guess the order of a phrase like “two blue shoes” they guess “shoes blue two”. This runs counter to surface word order in English, according to which numeral words precede adjectives—consistent with a guess of “shoes two blue”. However the order participants choose is very similar to English in terms of the structural relations among words; linguists believe that adjectives are structually closer to nouns because they modify noun properties, unlike numerals. These semantic relationships hold in English, and in the majority of the world’s languages. That English speakers transfer this property to a new language, rather than surface order, suggests that learners are biased to use these kinds of structured semantic representations.
April 01, 2014