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Language learning, language use, and the evolution of linguistic variation

Smith, K; Perfors, A; Samara, A; Swoboda, K; Wonnacott, EA; (2017) Language learning, language use, and the evolution of linguistic variation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences , 372 , Article 20160051. 10.1098/rstb.2016.0051. Green open access

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Abstract

Linguistic universals arise from the interaction between the processes of language learning and language use. A test-case for the relationship between these factors is linguistic variation, which tends to be conditioned on linguistic or sociolinguistic criteria. How can we explain the scarcity of unpredictable variation in natural language, and to what extent is this property of language a straightforward reflection of biases in statistical learning? We review three strands of experimental work exploring these questions, and introduce a Bayesian model of the learning and transmission of linguistic variation along with a closely-matched artificial language learning experiment with adult participants. Our results show that while the biases of language learners can potentially play a role in shaping linguistic systems, the relationship between biases of learners and the structure of languages is not straightforward. Weak biases can have strong effects on language structure as they accumulate over repeated transmission. But the opposite can also be true: strong biases can have weak or no effects. Furthermore, the use of language during interactions can reshape linguistic systems. Combining data and insights from studies of learning, transmission and use is therefore essential if we are to understand how biases in statistical learning interact with language transmission and language use to shape the structural properties of language.

Type: Article
Title: Language learning, language use, and the evolution of linguistic variation
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2016.0051
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0051
Language: English
Additional information: © 2016 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.
Keywords: Learning; iterated learning; language
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences > Language and Cognition
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1522131
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