New research demonstrates language learners' creativity

March 15, 2011

New research published in Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) firmly establishes that language learning goes well beyond simple imitation, and in fact that language learners are quite creative and remarkably smart. Not only are learners able to generalize grammatical restrictions to new words in a category – in this case, made-up adjectives – but they also do not learn these restrictions in situations where they can be attributed to some irrelevant factor.

This point is driven home in an article, "Learning what not to say: The role of statistical preemption and categorization in a-adjective production," to be published in the March 2011 issue of . A preprint version of the article is available here. When authors Jeremy Boyd of the University of Illinois and Adele Goldberg of Princeton University asked adult speakers to produce sentences containing made-up adjectives like ablim, they found that people avoided using ablim before the noun it modified, unconsciously treating it like real adjectives that sound similar—e.g., afraid, which also cannot be used before the noun it modifies (i.e., the afraid cat is a less preferred formulation than the cat that's afraid). This result indicates that speakers readily generalize a restriction against this use—referred to as "prenominal"—to adjectives that they've never heard before.

But how is the restriction learned in the first place? Drs. Boyd and Goldberg show that witnessing ablim used after nouns (i.e., postnominally, as in the hamster that's ablim) makes participants even more likely to avoid its use before nouns in their own utterances. While this may sound like learners are simply imitating the adjective uses they see in the language to which they are exposed, the authors go on to show that learning is savvy, and only occurs under certain conditions.

For example, in an analogous learning situation, when children see an adult with his right hand in a cast play a video game using just his left, they do not assume that there is a restriction on how the game can be played—i.e., that one can only use one's left hand. They immediately infer that the adult would use his right hand (or both hands) if he could, but that the cast is preventing him from doing so. In similar fashion, when a new group of participants witnessed ablim used postnominally, but this time in a context in which there was a reason for its postnominal use that had nothing to do with ablim itself, participants did not learn a restriction against ablim's prenominal use. This indicates that learners carefully evaluate the input they receive, and that learning only occurs when the input is deemed informative.

This research demonstrates that speakers do not learn purely by imitating others, but bring sophisticated and creative resources to bear on the process. This is especially true when it comes to language, where the fact that children routinely produce sentences to which they have never been exposed indicates that they are not simply imitating what they hear.

Explore further: Teaching a foreign language? Best teach in the accent of the listener

Related Stories

Exposure to two languages carries far-reaching benefits

May 19, 2009

People who can speak two languages are more adept at learning a new foreign language than their monolingual counterparts, according to research conducted at Northwestern University. And their bilingual advantage persists ...

Second language learners recall native language when reading

June 1, 2010

( -- Adults fluent in English whose first language is Chinese retrieve their native language when reading in English, according to new research in the June 2 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. This study suggests ...

Children's way with words sparks research

August 28, 2006

For some scientists, research ideas can be found anywhere - even at home. Dr. Elena Nicoladis, a professor in the University of Alberta Department of Psychology, found her own children prompted fascinating language research ...

Recommended for you

Averaging the wisdom of crowds

December 12, 2017

The best decisions are made on the basis of the average of various estimates, as confirmed by the research of Dennie van Dolder and Martijn van den Assem, scientists at VU Amsterdam. Using data from Holland Casino promotional ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 15, 2011
Perhaps neologism is a facet to learning language, as well.
not rated yet Mar 15, 2011
asked adult speakers to produce sentences containing made-up adjectives like ablim
Considering the boundary conditions given - adult speakers, Western culture, English as embedding language - the conclusions are of limited value only.

Moreover, the notions of creativity and simulation are not really reciprocally exclusive which is, however, insinuated. One example are the variations on a theme in the musical world. The several centuries old theme "La folia" has given rise to dozens of compositions, from simple enchanting tunes to hilarious modern pieces involving motor bikes or chainsaws.

Simulation and creativity are working in combination, in music and in language.
not rated yet Mar 15, 2011
Your comments I value.

Consider the following:
"Universal languages" might have a strange property - those languages appear to be inaccessible to translation.

Of course you can say: All sounds lend themselves to interpretation - or even to meaning.
And of course an objection to this, is to say:
Interpretation and translation are not identical.

There is no way (for me) to know what, for example, music means to you. You can say, for example, the music is sad.
Yet, there is no agreement to "sad".

All this, again, reminds me of my bias (fondness) of Korzybski's famous premise. Of course, we share Korzybski's 'bias', as well. Multilingualism.
not rated yet Mar 15, 2011
You can say, for example, the music is sad.
Many people do so; I think it's wrong. Instead, music is the only justification for mankind's existence.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.