Nav: Home

Learning to read comes at a cost

December 01, 2018

The early focus on larger units may have positive effects, and explain why young children are so good at learning certain areas of grammar, say scientists from the PSL University of Paris, the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They found that preliterate 6-year-olds were better at learning grammatical relations between words than at learning novel words in an artificial language learning study. After learning to read, these children lost their grammatical advantage.

Starting Big

Adults typically have problems with learning grammatical relations such as agreement between nouns and their gendered articles (is the Spanish word for problem 'la problema' or 'el problema'?). Young children are much better at learning such arbitrary relations among words. Children's superior learning skills may be due to their age and brain flexibility. However, according to Naomi Havron and her colleagues, children's advantage in grammar learning may also be due to their inability to read. This idea is based on Inbal Arnon's Starting Big hypothesis, which states that younger children are better learners because they focus more on multiword units and less on individual words. The researchers predicted that children should excel at learning certain grammatical relations between words before they become literate. After learning how to read, they should pay more attention to single words, which hinders learning relations between words.

An alien language

To test children's learning abilities, the researchers created a new language. This artificial language contained eight new nouns for existing items, such as "keba" for clock and "nadi" for chair, paired with one of two new 'gender articles': "do" or "ga". On screen, a green cartoon alien with three eyes would point at the object and say the alien equivalent of "this is the clock" (e.g. "kamek do keba"). All sentences started with "kamek" followed by a pause, but there was no pause between the article and noun. A group of 31 first graders (6-year-olds) and 27 third graders (8-year-olds) from schools in Israel listened to all sentences in the alien language for about four minutes.

The researchers then tested the children on vocabulary (nouns) and grammar (gender agreement relations). To test vocabulary, the alien would use the wrong label (calling a clock a "nadi"). To test grammar, the alien would use the wrong gender article (calling a chair "do nadi" instead of "ga nadi"). In each trial, the alien would utter both the correct and the incorrect sentence (e.g. "kamek ga nadi" and "kamek do nadi"), after which children had to decide on the correct one. All children were tested again after six months, during which time the first graders had learned how to read. For the second testing session, the researchers used a similar language with a new set of gender articles and nouns. Would literacy affect the 6-year-olds' learning patterns?

The effect of literacy

The preliterate 6-year-olds were better at learning grammatical relations than at learning nouns. Their score on grammatical relations was well above chance (64% correct), while their performance on nouns was at chance (50% correct). The 8-year-olds were equally good at learning grammar and vocabulary, scoring above 65% correct in both sessions. After only six months of reading instruction, the first graders showed the same pattern as the third graders. The now literate 6-year-olds performed equally well on grammatical relations (61% correct) and nouns (57% correct). As expected, their grammatical agreement advantage had disappeared after learning to read.

The researchers conclude that literacy affects the way children learn a new language, and may come at a cost. According to first author Naomi Havron and MPI's Limor Raviv, this finding has implications for second language teaching: exposure to written input can help word learning, but may harm some aspects of grammar learning. Although learning to read has many benefits, the authors argue that "there are advantages to learning a new language before you can read".
-end-
Publication

Havron, N., Raviv, L., & Arnon, I. (in press). Literate and preliterate children show different learning patterns in an artificial language learning task. Journal of Cultural Cognitive Science.

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Related Language Articles:

Human language most likely evolved gradually
One of the most controversial hypotheses for the origin of human language faculty is the evolutionary conjecture that language arose instantaneously in humans through a single gene mutation.
'She' goes missing from presidential language
MIT researchers have found that although a significant percentage of the American public believed the winner of the November 2016 presidential election would be a woman, people rarely used the pronoun 'she' when referring to the next president before the election.
How does language emerge?
How did the almost 6000 languages of the world come into being?
New research quantifies how much speakers' first language affects learning a new language
Linguistic research suggests that accents are strongly shaped by the speaker's first language they learned growing up.
Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.
Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.
Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.
Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.
Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language
Sign languages can help reveal hidden aspects of the logical structure of spoken language, but they also highlight its limitations because speech lacks the rich iconic resources that sign language uses on top of its sophisticated grammar.
Lying in a foreign language is easier
It is not easy to tell when someone is lying.
More Language News and Language Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans 2.0
More than test scores or good grades–what do kids need for the future? This hour, TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, both during and after this time of crisis. Guests include educators Richard Culatta and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Space
One of the most consistent questions we get at the show is from parents who want to know which episodes are kid-friendly and which aren't. So today, we're releasing a separate feed, Radiolab for Kids. To kick it off, we're rerunning an all-time favorite episode: Space. In the 60's, space exploration was an American obsession. This hour, we chart the path from romance to increasing cynicism. We begin with Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, with a story about the Voyager expedition, true love, and a golden record that travels through space. And astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson explains the Coepernican Principle, and just how insignificant we are. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.