We know toddlers can't count, but they are good at statistics

Toddlers can’t count. And, to be honest, statistics is the one field of math that has never really clicked for me. But there is mounting evidence that children and adults are very sensitive to the statistical nature of the world.

This has been shown in vision studies, some of which I’ve worked on, but which I won’t talk about more here (but check out Brian Scholl’s lab, among others).

Statistical learning has also been found for language-like material. Certainly, statistics could help with learning language. For instance, a given words (e.g., the) is more likely to be followed by some words (e.g., book or table) than other words (e.g., contemplate or earn). Moreover, rare sound combinations typically mark boundaries between words (no word contains the sound combination thst, but it can occur — rarely — between words, such as with steam). Babies could, at least in theory, use that information to break the sound stream that they hear into words (contrary to popular imagination, people rarely speak in single words, even to infants, so determining that winsome is one word but withsome is two is non-trivial).

So, statistical information that could be valuable for language learning is available in what babies hear. A number of studies have shown that babies are in fact sensitive to such information (check out Gomez & Gerken, 2000, for a review). Whether or not statistical learning is actually used in real live language learning as opposed to the laboratory experiments just mentioned is an open question, but it certainly could be.

The issue that is bothering me lately is that I’m not aware of any evidence that infants are better at statistical learning than adults. Given that children tend to be much better language-learners than are adults, this raises an important question: what aspect of language learning are adults bad at? (Some people think that adults aren’t impaired at learning languages; I don’t think that’s true and may eventually write a post about it.) The evidence lately seems to be that adults are bad at syntax, so this makes me wonder just how likely it is that statistical learning is used to help learn syntax, as some people have claimed.

Gomez, R.L., Gerken, L. (2000). Infant artificial language learning and language acquisition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(5), 178186.


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