Saffran (2003) authored a paper entitled Statistical language learning mechanisms and constraints. This blog post summarizes Saffran’s paper beginning with a description of statistical mechanisms and constraints as cues that work to help learners discover patterns in language, but these patterns in language may actually be the structured evidence of kinds of learning patterns used to acquire language. Theories of language acquisition seem to be divided between those emphasizing the primacy of children as active role players who learn language through primitive statistical analysis involving repeating sound patterns. This theory suggests they are able over the course of time to parse and assign meaning to specific vocalizations. The second theory suggests infants are born with an innate system of linguistic universal values aiding them in learning language wherever they may be born in the world. A synthesis of both of these theories is conceptualized in the idea; is it possible for learning-oriented theories to account for the existence of linguistic universal values? Such a theory has been proposed under the name of the “constrained statistical learning framework.” This concept simply states it is the nature of how language is learned that creates similarities in how language is used among speakers of languages.
Essentially, this new theory says infants learn language in a constrained manner through readily and receptively processing some statistical repetitions in auditory stimuli more than others. It is this receptiveness to learn language this way and not another as the underlying linguistic evolutionary force guided by human learning mechanisms that structure languages. Constrained learning mechanisms suggest infants learn through the perception of auditory sequencing of others’ combinations of frequent versus less frequent vocalizations, thereby parsing combinations of phonemes as more likely to be words because these vocalizations or phonemes are phonotactic in nature. Certain combinations of sounds or phonemes are more likely to occupy certain positions within sequences of phonemes in words, thereby indicating language is phonotactic in nature. The learning mechanisms of infants suggest there is statistical perceptiveness toward acquiring phonotactic sounds and phonemes, often sharing common phonetic features with the pronunciation of like or similar groupings of sounds.
Theories of language structure due to innate knowledge in infants provide some explanation for the acquisition of particular language structures manifested cross-linguistically, but most learning-oriented theories have difficulty accounting for this exact same phenomenon. It has been suggested the universal structures observed in human languages are due to constraints on how humans learn, that infants learn language through semantic groupings tied to the statistical appearance of certain sounds or phonemes (predictive dependencies) that predict the conceptual beginning of the semantic grouping. Languages use specific combinations of linguistic auditory stimuli with statistical frequency as predictive dependencies that usually signal the beginning of a semantic or conceptual grouping of words containing a noun. Examples being words such as “a” or “the” among others. People who do not speak a foreign language that they hear somewhere, would not have learned those linguistic auditory stimuli that native speakers of a language would associate with predictive dependencies as the beginning of phrases.
A number of studies have been conducted to assess the abilities of infants to coordinate or discriminate between statistical cues present in linguistic auditory stimuli, if based on statistical frequency of sounds representing nouns or predictive dependencies preceding semantic groupings containing nouns. Other areas of insight into the acquisition of language in infants are those exposed to bilingual environments with multiple sets of statistical linguistic inferences to understand and use or infants having difficulty in learning language due to faulty processing or lack of exposure to statistical cues, verbal and otherwise, in the environment. To further complicate the matter, researchers do not agree on how to define interdependent ways in which infants might or may learn language. Empirical data is needed to determine if language acquisition by statistical learning produces structures similar to rule-based knowledge structures and to ascertain if abstract and rule-based structures are probabilistic in nature. Statistical cues in language may be structured evidence of learning patterns used to acquire language. This suggests an evolutionary neurobiological aspect to the development of human language.
Saffran, J. R. (2003). Statistical language learning mechanisms and constraints. Current directions in psychological science, 12(4), 110-114.
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