Summary and Keywords
Language is a structured form of communication that is unique to humans. Within the first few years of life, typically developing children can understand and produce full sentences in their native language or languages. For centuries, philosophers, psychologists, and linguists have debated how we acquire language with such ease and speed. Central to this debate has been whether the learning process is driven by innate capacities or information in the environment. In the field of psychology, researchers have moved beyond this dichotomy to examine how perceptual and cognitive biases may guide input-driven learning and how these biases may change with experience. There is evidence that this integration permeates the learning and development of all aspects of language—from sounds (phonology), to the meanings of words (lexical-semantics), to the forms of words and the structure of sentences (morphosyntax). For example, in the area of phonology, newborns’ bias to attend to speech over other signals facilitates early learning of the prosodic and phonemic properties of their native language(s). In the area of lexical-semantics, infants’ bias to attend to novelty aids in mapping new words to their referents. In morphosyntax, infants’ sensitivity to vowels, repetition, and phrase edges guides statistical learning. In each of these areas, too, new biases come into play throughout development, as infants gain more knowledge about their native language(s).
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