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Toward a model of multiple paths to language learning: Response to commentaries

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Language learning, while seemingly effortless for young learners, is a complex process involving many interacting pieces, both within the child and in their language-learning environments, which can result in unique language learning trajectories and outcomes. How does the brain adjust to or accommodate the myriad variations that occur during this developmental process. How does it adapt and change over time? In our review, we proposed that the timing, quantity, and quality of children's early language experiences, particularly during an early sensitive period for the acquisition of phonology, shape the establishment of neural phonological representations that are used to establish and support phonological working memory (PWM). The efficiency of the PWM system in turn, we argued, influences the acquisition and processing of more complex aspects of language. In brief, we proposed that experience modulates later language outcomes through its early effects on PWM. We supported this claim by reviewing research from several unique groups of language learners who experience delayed exposure to language (children with cochlear implants [CI] or internationally adopted [IA] children, and children with either impoverished [signing deaf children with hearing parents)] or enriched [bilingual] early language experiences). By comparing PWM and language outcomes in these groups, we sought to highlight general patterns in language development that emerge based on variation in early language exposure. Moving forward, we also proposed that the language acquisition patterns in these groups, and others, can be used to understand how variability in early language input might affect the neural systems supporting language development and how this might affect language learning itself.


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ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Lara J. Pierce, Division of Developmental Medicine, Boston Children's Hospital, 1 Autumn Street, Boston, MA 02115. E-mail: or


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Toward a model of multiple paths to language learning: Response to commentaries

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