New Research Sheds Light on the Differences between Child and Adult Learning Behavior

November 20th, 2013 No Comments Other

It is often said that children are able to learn new languages more easily than adults, although whether or not this is actually true is still up for debate. A new study by the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, however, has identified some key differences between the way children and adults learn.

The researchers explain that one universal feature of human language is the division between grammatical functors (articles, prepositions) and content words (verbs, adjectives, nouns). Grammatical functors define and signal sentence structure, while content words carry meaning.

With this in mind, languages can be divided roughly into two main categories: languages that use a Verb-Object (VO) order; and those that use an Object-Verb (OV) order.

The frequency of the function words serves as a clue that helps learners identify which category a language belongs to and, as a result, “tune in” to it.

As the researchers note in their report, this learning mechanism is used by younger as well as adult language learners when facing new linguistic material. However, their underlying processing and learning mechanisms are somewhat different.

Adults, for example, tend to rely more heavily on statistical and distributional information, while younger learners might generalize and extract regularities.

“To children – or better infants – only their genetic endowment and the sounds of their surroundings are available. They thus start with sounds and – I believe – in particular rhythm,” explains Marina Nespor, one of the study’s lead authors.

“Later on – around 8 months of age – they can also calculate the relative frequency of the items in a string. This allows them to set basic properties of their language of exposure.

Adults, instead tend to concentrate on words and their meaning, as we experience when we learn second languages in adulthood. I believe this is one of the major differences,” she says.

In order to test the theory, the researchers enlisted the help of Italian and French native speakers (VO language group) and Japanese and Basque native speakers (OV language group). The volunteers were asked to carry out learning tasks that focused on sentences in an invented language that featured one of the two language structures.

Previous studies have indicated that infants as young as eight months already display a preference for languages that mirror the structure of their native language, and this study found similar results.

However, the researchers note that that although both the young learners and adult learners display similar learning behavior, there was one key difference. The young learners in the earlier study didn’t show the same OV-VO asymmetry as adults did in the recent study.

Both Japanese and Italian infants showed a clear preference for the order of their respective languages. Adults in the Japanese and Basque groups on the other hand, displayed a much more pronounced preference for their own language structure than the French and Italian ones did.

This is likely due to the fact that adults follow the distributional properties of their native language more closely than infants do, mainly because adults have more experience with their native language and have a greater memory capacity, which allows them to track the distributions of specific items and categories more easily.

Younger learners have less experience and a smaller memory capacity, so their best processing strategy is to extract overarching regularities.

Nespor points out that this could also explain the increasingly greater difficulties encountered in learning a new language when growing up.

“Children, while showing such preference precociously, are in fact much more flexible and can easily learn also a language that has a different word order from their own, while adults seem to be more rigidly tied to their native language scheme,” she says.

The full research article “Word frequency cues word order in adults: cross-linguistic evidence” was published in Frontiers in Psychology and can be found here.


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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