Patterns of learning: how children with good grammar are making the connections
Apr 28, 2016 | News | by The Learning Press staff
Not since Slaughterhouse Five have aliens had such an impact on the English language.
A new study has found that children who can identify patterns in an alien cartoon sequence show better grammar skills than those who cannot.
Researchers from the University of Sydney and Australian National University say the findings show that good language skills are linked to a child’s ability to recognise patterns.
They argue that even when factors such as intelligence and memory are taken into consideration, the findings suggest that the skill of pattern finding is strongly associated with language development.
“This research is vital, as we know that language development and the ability to communicate is strongly linked to positive life outcomes including academic achievement, employment and mental health,” said Associate professor Joanne Arciuli from USYD.
For centuries, scientists have grappled with the question of why some children acquire language faster than others - and whether language is innate or learnt.
Associate professor Evan Kidd of the ANU said the findings counter traditional theories of language which argue that grammar cannot be learnt.
“For a long time people thought of grammar as some sort of special cognitive system, like a box in our brain that we are born with.
“But our study shows that language proficiency is associated with learning - which helps to explain why some people pick it up faster than others,” he said.
“These findings are exciting because in the long term they could help us develop strategies to assist children who may not be typically developing for their age.”
Published in the journal Child Development, the study assessed 68 children aged six to eight on two separate tests - one on grammatical knowledge and the other involving a visual pattern-learning task.
There was a strong correlation between those who were able to identify the patterns in a series of non-verbal alien cartoon sequences on the computer, and those who performed better on the grammar test.
Dr Arciuli says the research shows children have a “remarkable” capacity to learn without conscious awareness.
“The study tells us that we have a whole lot of little statisticians running around,” she said.
“Unbeknownst to children themselves, their brains are constantly computing these patterns or statistics.
“For example; which words co-occur regularly, which words follow others, and different contexts in which words are used.
“Their ability to identify patterns is very much related to how they learn to use the conventions of language.”
Based on the findings, the researchers have been funded by the Australian Research Council to carry out a three-year study to further investigate the underlying cognitive mechanisms of language development in children.
Currently recruiting five year-olds, it is the first study to look at how recognition of statistical patterns is related to children’s learning of grammar, one of the most important aspects of language acquisition.