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Talking to fewer people leads to having more malleable linguistic representations

Lev-Ari, S. (2017). Talking to fewer people leads to having more malleable linguistic representations. PLoS One, 12(8): e0183593. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0183593.
We learn language from our social environment. In general, the more sources we have, the less informative each of them is, and the less weight we should assign it. If this is the case, people who interact with fewer others should be more susceptible to the influence of each of their interlocutors. This paper tests whether indeed people who interact with fewer other people have more malleable phonological representations. Using a perceptual learning paradigm, this paper shows that individuals who regularly interact with fewer others are more likely to change their boundary between /d/ and /t/ following exposure to an atypical speaker. It further shows that the effect of number of interlocutors is not due to differences in ability to learn the speaker’s speech patterns, but specific to likelihood of generalizing the learned pattern. These results have implications for both language learning and language change, as they suggest that individuals with smaller social networks might play an important role in propagating linguistic changes.

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