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Starting Big: the role of multi-word chunks in first and second language learning (ISF 527-12, BSF 2011107)

Why are children better language learners than adults despite being worse at a range of other cognitive tasks? This project offers a new perspective on this long-standing question by highlighting the differential role of multi-word chunks in child and adult language learning. In a nutshell, we propose that children are better at certain aspects of language learning because they learn from larger and less-analyzed units: while children's utilize multi-word chunks (like I-don't-know) in the learning process, adults will tend to learn from individual words – a tendency that will hinder learning of certain grammatical relations (Arnon, 2010). As part of this project, we’ve shown that children rely on multiword information in processing (Arnon & Clark, 2011); that such units serve as building blocks in learning (Arnon, McCauley & Christiansen, 2017); and that they can facilitate learning of certain grammatical relations in adult learners (Arnon & Ramscar, 2012; Siegelman & Arnon, 2015).

Together with Stewart M. McCauley & Morten H. Christiansen, we recently published a paper in the Journal of Memory and Language documenting Age-of-Acquisition effects for multiword phrases (pdf). To watch a short presentation on this paper, click here: "The Building Blocks of Language".