Maturational Constraints on Learning
It is well known that our ability to learn languages fully and fluently changes over age. While adults are skilled in many other learning tasks, only young children are remarkable in learning languages so well – often much better than adults. Of great interest, then, is how we have evolved to have such outstanding language learning abilities during childhood but which do not continue throughout life.
I will discuss our findings on what the young brain computes that underlies our ability to learn human languages. In a long program of research (on what we have called ‘statistical learning’) we have shown that infants and young children are capable of rapidly extracting a variety of complex statistics about the frequency and co-occurrence of sounds, words, and word categories from the speech they are exposed to – and that these rapid and complex computations form the foundation of learning the rules of their native languages. I will also suggest that maturational changes and expansions in these computational abilities make adult learners excel at learning many other things but no longer be as good at learning languages.