The last 50 years of research on language development have revealed in young language learners two, potential conflicting, abilities. On the one hand, infants are exquisitely sensitive to specific surface properties of their input and the statistics thereof. On the other hand, infants are able to rapidly generalize beyond their input based on highly abstract formal properties. The relative importance of sensitivity to surface vs. abstract linguistic properties is at the heart of theoretical debates about the nature of human language. The research proposed here reflects our ongoing attempt to determine how language learners combine their sensitivity to surface properties of language and their ability to abstract beyond these properties. From the research performed during the current period of funding, we have formed the following 3 hypotheses: (1) Memory demands, task demands and previous experience all influence the level of abstraction achieved for formally identical input. (2) Language learners form only the most abstract representation necessary to account for the set of data they have encountered. (3) Under some circumstances, adults with subtle developmental language disabilities are less likely than adults with normal language to generalize based on abstract properties of language. To test these hypotheses, participants are familiarized with stimuli from an artificial language-like system. They are then tested on new stimuli that are either consistent or inconsistent with the particular properties of the familiarization stimuli under study. Significant discrimination of consistent vs. inconsistent test items is taken as evidence of learning. Using this paradigm, the research compares learning across different input conditions (2 formally identical language systems with different surface instantiations, formal systems that conform vs. do not conform to properties of natural languages) and across populations (6- to -12-month-old infants, adults with normal language, adults with impaired language abilities). The findings from this research are likely to reveal important information about how infants and adults are influenced by the specifics of their language input as they generalize beyond it. The findings also have the potential to provide new insights into the role of learning in language disorders.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-BBBP-F (02))
Program Officer
Mccardle, Peggy D
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Arizona
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
Zip Code
Gonzales, Kalim; Gerken, LouAnn; Gómez, Rebecca L (2015) Does hearing two dialects at different times help infants learn dialect-specific rules? Cognition 140:60-71
Hawthorne, Kara; Mazuka, Reiko; Gerken, LouAnn (2015) The acoustic salience of prosody trumps infants' acquired knowledge of language-specific prosodic patterns. J Mem Lang 82:105-117
Gerken, LouAnn; Dawson, Colin; Chatila, Razanne et al. (2015) Surprise! Infants consider possible bases of generalization for a single input example. Dev Sci 18:80-9
Hawthorne, Kara; Gerken, LouAnn (2014) From pauses to clauses: prosody facilitates learning of syntactic constituency. Cognition 133:420-8
Lany, Jill; Gómez, Rebecca L (2013) Probabilistically-Cued Patterns Trump Perfect Cues in Statistical Language Learning. Lang Learn Dev 9:66-87
Dawson, Colin R; Gerken, LouAnn (2012) Can rational models be good accounts of developmental change? The case of language development at two time scales. Adv Child Dev Behav 43:95-124
Lindsey, Brittany A; Gerken, Louann (2012) The role of morphophonological regularity in young Spanish-speaking children's production of gendered noun phrases. J Child Lang 39:753-76
Gerken, LouAnn; Balcomb, Frances K; Minton, Juliet L (2011) Infants avoid 'labouring in vain' by attending more to learnable than unlearnable linguistic patterns. Dev Sci 14:972-9
Richtsmeier, Peter; Gerken, Louann; Ohala, Diane (2011) Contributions of phonetic token variability and word-type frequency to phonological representations. J Child Lang 38:951-78
Gerken, LouAnn (2010) Infants use rational decision criteria for choosing among models of their input. Cognition 115:362-6

Showing the most recent 10 out of 20 publications