Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Pattern Learning Aids Language Development in Kids

Children’s language development is a learnt skill that is intricately linked to their ability to recognise patterns in their environment, according to research published in Child Development (http://tinyurl.com/j974fof). The study found that children who were better at identifying patterns in non-verbal tasks also had better knowledge of grammar.

A/Prof Evan Kidd from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language 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,” Kidd 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.”

The study assessed 68 children aged 6–8 years on two critical tests – one on grammatical knowledge and the other a visual pattern learning task including an exposure phase (where children aren’t asked to learn anything) and a surprise test phase. The results revealed a strong connection between those who were able to identify the patterns in a seemingly trivial series of alien cartoon sequences on the computer, and those who performed better on the grammar test.

A/Prof Joanne Arciuli of The University of Sydney said the research shows children have a remarkable capacity to learn without conscious awareness. “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 these findings, the researchers will now carry out a 3-year study investigating the underlying cognitive mechanisms of language development in kids. Currently recruiting 5-year-olds, it is the first longitudinal study to look at how recognition of statistical patterns is related to children’s learning of grammar.