Developmental Science

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Volume 22 Issue 1 (January 2019), Pages

Developmental changes in automatic rule‐learning mechanisms across early childhood

Abstract Infants’ ability to learn complex linguistic regularities from early on has been revealed by electrophysiological studies indicating that 3‐month‐olds, but not adults, can automatically detect non‐adjacent dependencies between syllables. While different ERP responses in adults and infants suggest that both linguistic rule learning and its link to basic auditory processing undergo developmental changes, systematic investigations of the developmental trajectories are scarce. In the present study, we assessed 2‐ and 4‐year‐olds’ ERP indicators of pitch discrimination and linguistic rule learning in a syllable‐based oddball design. To test for the relation between auditory discrimination and rule learning, ERP responses to pitch changes were used as predictor for potential linguistic rule‐learning effects. Results revealed that 2‐year‐olds, but not 4‐year‐olds, showed ERP markers of rule learning. Although, 2‐year‐olds’ rule learning was not dependent on differences in pitch perception, 4‐year‐old children demonstrated a dependency, such that those children who showed more pronounced responses to pitch changes still showed an effect of rule learning. These results narrow down the developmental decline of the ability for automatic linguistic rule learning to the age between 2 and 4 years, and, moreover, point towards a strong modification of this change by auditory processes. At an age when the ability of automatic linguistic rule learning phases out, rule learning can still be observed in children with enhanced auditory responses. The observed interrelations are plausible causes for age‐of‐acquisition effects and inter‐individual differences in language learning.

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