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Language is guided by regularities or patterns at every level. For example, English speakers must learn that the -s suffix denotes a plural noun (e.g., horses, forks), that sentences follow a set structure (subject-verb-object), and that only certain sound combinations can occur at the beginnings of words (e.g., pl versus tl*). To speak a language proficiently, we need to pick up on these and countless other regularities, many of which are highly complex and hidden from view. How are we able to do this?
In our research, we are examining the idea that picking up these sorts of linguistic patterns can be a form of implicit learning — which occurs incidentally, without intention to learn, producing knowledge that is inaccessible to awareness. Children acquiring their native language typically learn these regularities implicitly, whereas adults may potentially learn these linguistic patterns either explicitly or implicitly. We are also investigating the related idea that language learning can be shaped by implicit processing during sleep. To address these questions, we use different cognitive neuroscience methods, with a focus on EEG and event-related potentials (ERPs).
Our research bridges the following broad areas:
Implicit versus explicit memory systems
Sleep-dependent memory consolidation
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Here are a few of the questions we’re currently tackling:
Does the ability to pick up on statistical linguistic patterns in the environment (known as “statistical learning”) change throughout the lifespan?
Can statistical learning occur outside of conscious awareness?
Can we boost people’s ability to learn patterns in language, or find ways to make this process easier?
How can we manipulate sleep to enhance different aspects of cognition, including language learning?
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