Fenna Poletiek

How do children learn and adults use the complex system of language? What information do they select in a sentence when trying to understand a speaker? Is it statistical information (some words and some expressions occur much more often than others, like "dogs bark" versus "girls bark")? Is it world knowledge? Why, then, is child-directed speech often unrealistic, as in fairy tales? And finally, what benefit might linguistic complexity have for other functions, like visual perception? And how does the child’s cognitive development help the development of language skills? These questions form the basis of my research.

In this research, we use artificial languages that we provide with the features of natural language we are interested in. Next, we observe how participants in the lab learn and use these languages. Our experimental approach allows us to investigate language, which is not possible using natural language. For example, we can compare several types of grammars – natural and simpler, unnatural ones – and observe whether the brain responds differently. One of our key findings is that the specific hierarchical complexity of human languages makes them easier to learn and use than so-called simple grammars, given the way the brain develops generally, and given how caregivers talk to children at each stage of development.

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