Skip to main content Accessibility help

Infant statistical-learning ability is related to real-time language processing*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 July 2017

Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame
Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame
Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame
Department of Psychology, University of California-Davis
E-mail address:


Infants are adept at learning statistical regularities in artificial language materials, suggesting that the ability to learn statistical structure may support language development. Indeed, infants who perform better on statistical learning tasks tend to be more advanced in parental reports of infants’ language skills. Work with adults suggests that one way statistical learning ability affects language proficiency is by facilitating real-time language processing. Here we tested whether 15-month-olds’ ability to learn sequential statistical structure in artificial language materials is related to their ability to encode and interpret native-language speech. Specifically, we tested their ability to learn sequential structure among syllables (Experiment 1) and words (Experiment 2), as well as their ability to encode familiar English words in sentences. The results suggest that infants' ability to learn sequential structure among syllables is related to their lexical-processing efficiency, providing continuity with findings from children and adults, though effects were modest.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.



This work was supported by funds from NSF BCS-1352443 and by Notre Dame's Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts to JL.


Arciuli, J. & Torkildsen, J. von Kos (2012). Advancing our understanding of the link between statistical learning and language acquisition: the need for longitudinal data. Frontiers in Psychology 3, online: <doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00324>.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Aslin, R. N., Saffran, J. R. & Newport, E. L. (1998). Computation of conditional probability statistics by 8-month-old infants. Psychological Science 9 321324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bates, E., Bretherton, I. & Snyder, L. (1988). From first words to grammar: individual differences and dissociable mechanisms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Borovsky, A., Ellis, E. M., Evans, J. L., Elman, J. L. (2016). Semantic structure in vocabulary knowledge interacts with lexical and sentence processing in infancy. Child Development 87, 1893–908.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Borovsky, A., Elman, J. L. & Fernald, A. (2012). Knowing a lot for one's age: vocabulary skill and not age is associated with anticipatory incremental sentence interpretation in children and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 112, 417–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cameron-Faulkner, T., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2003). A construction based analysis of child directed speech. Cognitive Science 27, 843–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Conway, C. M., Bauernschmidt, A., Huang, S. S. & Pisoni, D. B. (2010). Implicit statistical learning in language processing: word predictability is the key. Cognition 114, 356–71.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Ellis, E. A., Robledo Gonzalez, M. & Deak, G. O. (2013). Visual prediction in infancy: What is the association with later vocabulary? Language Learning and Development 10, 3650.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Farmer, T. A., Christiansen, M. H. & Monaghan, R. (2006). Phonological typicality influences on-line sentence comprehension. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, 12203–08.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Fernald, A., Perfors, A. & Marchman, V. A. (2006). Picking up speed in understanding: speech processing efficiency and vocabulary growth across the 2nd year. Developmental Psychology 42, 98116.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Fernald, A., Pinto, J. P., Swingley, D., Weinberg, A. & McRoberts, G. W. (1998). Rapid gains in speed of verbal processing by infants in the 2nd year. Psychological Science 9, 228–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fernald, A., Swingley, D. & Pinto, J. P. (2001). When half a word is enough: infants can recognize spoken words using partial phonetic information. Child Development 72, 1003–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fernald, A., Zangl, R., Portillo, A. & Marchman, V. A. (2008). Looking while listening: using eye movements to monitor spoken language comprehension by infants and young children. In Sekerina, I. A., Fernández, E. M. & Clahsen, H. (eds), Developmental psycholinguistics: on-line methods in children's language processing, 97135. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gerken, L. A., Wilson, R. & Lewis, W. (2005). Seventeen-month-olds can use distributional cues to form syntactic categories. Journal of Child Language 32, 249–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gómez, R. L. & Lakusta, L. (2004). A first step in form-based category abstraction in 12-month-old infants. Developmental Science 7, 567–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gómez, R. L. & Maye, J. (2005). The developmental trajectory of nonadjacent dependency learning. Infancy 7, 183206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Graf Estes, K. (2012). Infants generalize representations of statistically segmented words. Frontiers in Psychology 3. Online: <doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00447>.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Graf Estes, K., Edwards, J. & Saffran, J. R. (2011). Phonotactic constraints on infant word learning. Infancy 16, 180–97.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Graf Estes, K., Evans., J. L., Alibali, M. W. & Saffran, J. R. (2007). Can infants map meaning to newly segmented words? Statistical segmentation and word learning. Psychological Science 18, 254–60.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Graf Estes, K., Gluck, S. C. & Grimm, K. J. (2016). Finding patterns and learning words: infant phonotactic knowledge is associated with vocabulary size. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 146, 3449.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hay, J. F., Pelucci, B., Graf Estes, K. & Saffran, J. R. (2011). Linking sounds to meanings: infant statistical learning in a natural language. Cognitive Psychology 63, 93106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Houston-Price, C. & Nakia, S. (2004). Distinguishing novelty and familiarity effects in infant preference procedures. Infant and Child Development 13, 341–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hunter, M. A. & Ames, E. W. (1988). A multifactor model of infant preferences for novel and familiar stimuli. Advances in Infancy Research 5, 6995.Google Scholar
Huttenlocher, J., Haight, W., Bryk, A., Seltzer, M. & Lyons, T. (1991). Early vocabulary growth: relation to language input and gender. Developmental Psychology 27, 236–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kemler Nelson, D. G., Jusczk, P. W., Mandel, D. R., Myers, J., Turn, A. & Gerken., L. A. (1995). The Head-Turn Preference Procedure for testing auditory perception. Infant Behavior and Development 18, 111–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kidd, E. & Arciuli, J. (2016). Individual differences in statistical learning predict children's comprehension of syntax. Child Development 87, 184–93.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lany, J. (2014). Judging words by their covers and the company they keep: probabilistic cues support word learning. Child Development 85, 1727–39.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lany, J. & Gómez, R. L. (2008). Twelve-month-old infants benefit from prior experience in statistical learning. Psychological Science 19, 1247–52.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lany, J. & Saffran, J. R. (2010). From statistics to meaning: infant acquisition of lexical categories. Psychological Science 21, 284–91.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lany, J. & Saffran, J. R. (2011). Interactions between statistical and semantic information in infant language development. Developmental Science 14, 1207–19.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lany, J. & Saffran, J. R. (2013). Statistical learning mechanisms in infancy. In J. L. R. Rubenstein & P. Rakic (eds.), Comprehensive developmental neuroscience: neural circuit development and function in the brain, vol. 3 (pp. 231-248). Amsterdam: Elsevier.Google Scholar
Lieven, E., Behrens, H., Speares, J. & Tomasello, M. (2003). Early syntactic creativity: a usage-based approach. Journal of Child Language 30, 333–70.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Mani, N. & Huettig, F. (2012). Prediction during language processing is a piece of cake – but only for skilled producers. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 38, 843–7.Google Scholar
Marcus, G. F., Vijayan, S., Rao, S. B. & Vishton, P. M. (1999). Rule learning by seven-month-old infants. Science 283, 7780.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Mintz, T. H., Newport, E. L. & Bever, T. G. (2002). The distributional structure of grammatical categories in speech to young children. Cognitive Science 26, 393424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Misyak, J. B. & Christiansen, M. H. (2012). Statistical learning and language: an individual differences study. Language Learning: A Journal of Research in Language Studies 62, 302–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Newman, R., Ratner, N. B., Jusczyk, A. M. & Jusczyk, P. W. (2006). Infants’ early ability to segment the conversational speech signal predicts later language development: a retrospective analysis. Developmental Psychology 42, 643–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Newman, R., Rowe, M.L. & Ratner, N. B (2016). Input and uptake at 7 months predicts toddler vocabulary: the role of child-directed speech and infants processing skills in language development. Journal of Child Language 43, 1158–73.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Pelucci, B., Hay, J. F. & Saffran, J. R. (2009). Statistical learning in a natural language by 8-month-old infants. Child Development 80, 674–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N. & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science 274, 1926–8.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Saffran, J. R. & Thiessen, E. D. (2003). Pattern induction by infant language learners. Developmental Psychology 39, 484–94.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Shafto, C. L., Conway, C. M., Field, S. L. & Houston, D. M. (2012). Visual sequence learning in infancy: domain-general and domain-specific associations with language. Infancy 17, 247–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Singh, L., Reznik, J. S. & Xuehua, L. (2012). Infant word segmentation and childhood vocabulary development: a longitudinal analysis. Developmental Science 15, 482–95.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Spencer, M., Kaschak, M. P., Jones, J. L. & Lonigan, C. J. (2015). Statistical learning is related to early literacy-related skills. Reading and Writing 28, 467–90.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Swingley, D. (2005). Statistical clustering and the contents of the infant vocabulary. Cognitive Psychology 50, 86132.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Waxman, S. R., Lidz, J. L., Braun, I. E. & Lavin, T. (2009). Twenty-four-month-old infants’ interpretation of novel verbs and nouns in dynamic scenes. Cognitive Psychology 59, 6795.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Weisleder, A. & Fernald, A. (2013). Talking to children matters: early language experience strengthens processing and builds vocabulary. Psychological Science 24, 2143–52.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 65
Total number of PDF views: 488 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 19th July 2017 - 24th November 2020. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Hostname: page-component-57c975d4c7-dnntx Total loading time: 0.756 Render date: 2020-11-24T21:39:13.136Z Query parameters: { "hasAccess": "0", "openAccess": "0", "isLogged": "0", "lang": "en" } Feature Flags last update: Tue Nov 24 2020 21:00:59 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time) Feature Flags: { "metrics": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "peerReview": true, "crossMark": true, "comments": false, "relatedCommentaries": false, "subject": true, "clr": false, "languageSwitch": false }

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Infant statistical-learning ability is related to real-time language processing*
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Infant statistical-learning ability is related to real-time language processing*
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Infant statistical-learning ability is related to real-time language processing*
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *