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Starting Big: The Effect of Unit Size on Language Learning in Children and Adults

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 June 2020

Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel Department of Psychology, ENS, EHESS, CNRS, PSL University, France
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
*Address for correspondence: Naomi Havron, 29 rue d'Ulm, Paris, France. Email:


Multiword units play an important role in language learning and use. It was proposed that learning from such units can facilitate mastery of certain grammatical relations, and that children and adults differ in their use of multiword units during learning, contributing to their varying language-learning trajectories. Accordingly, adults learn gender agreement better when encouraged to learn from multiword units. Previous work has not examined two core predictions of this proposal: (1) that children also benefit from initial exposure to multiword units, and (2) that their learning patterns reflect a greater reliance on multiword units compared to adults. We test both predictions using an artificial-language. As predicted, both children and adults benefit from early exposure to multiword units. In addition, when exposed to unsegmented input – adults show better learning of nouns compared to article-noun pairings, but children do not, a pattern consistent with adults’ predicted tendency to focus less on multiword units.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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