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Volume 22 Issue 1 (January 2019), Pages

The profile of abstract rule learning in infancy: Meta‐analytic and experimental evidence

Abstract Everyone agrees that infants possess general mechanisms for learning about the world, but the existence and operation of more specialized mechanisms is controversial. One mechanism—rule learning—has been proposed as potentially specific to speech, based on findings that 7‐month‐olds can learn abstract repetition rules from spoken syllables (e.g. ABB patterns: wo‐fe‐fe, ga‐tu‐tu…) but not from closely matched stimuli, such as tones. Subsequent work has shown that learning of abstract patterns is not simply specific to speech. However, we still lack a parsimonious explanation to tie together the diverse, messy, and occasionally contradictory findings in that literature. We took two routes to creating a new profile of rule learning: meta‐analysis of 20 prior reports on infants’ learning of abstract repetition rules (including 1,318 infants in 63 experiments total), and an experiment on learning of such rules from a natural, non‐speech communicative signal. These complementary approaches revealed that infants were most likely to learn abstract patterns from meaningful stimuli. We argue that the ability to detect and generalize simple patterns supports learning across domains in infancy but chiefly when the signal is meaningfully relevant to infants’ experience with sounds, objects, language, and people.

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