Submited paper

Rule learning in bilingual and monolingual infants. Eye-tracking evidence
Kovács, Á. M. & Mehler, J.
International School for Advanced Studies (S.I.S.S.A.),
Trieste, Italy
Extracting regularities from the environment is crucial in the course of development. In
the process of language acquisition both the lexicon and the underlying grammatical rules
have to be learned. In a series of experiments we use eye-tracking to study rule learning
in monolingual and bilingual infants. In Study 1 we found that 7- and 12 month-old
infants could extract and generalize simple patterns that had a well-defined structure
(words with repeated syllables, e.g. “kiki”) but fail to extract patterns that had no clear
structure (different syllables, e.g. “kila”).
Study 2A asked whether 7- and 12-month-olds are able to extract two rules
simultaneously when confronted with more complex grammars that both had an inherent
structure (words with adjacent repetitions, e.g “zozomo” or distant repetitions e.g.
“zomozo”). Both age groups generalized the rule in the case of words with adjacent
repetitions, but not with distant repetitions. This suggests that when faced with two rules
that differ in complexity infants extract the more salient one (adjacent repetitions). In
Study 2B we investigate whether being exposed to two languages from birth would lead
to an advantage in learning two ‘artificial’ rules. Bilingual children have to learn two
different syntactic systems belonging to the two languages with halved exposure times.
The results suggest that bilingual 12-month-olds succeed to extract both adjacent and
distant repetitions.
Study 3 investigates the limitations of rule learning by asking how flexible are 7-monthold monolinguals and bilinguals in learning a second rule after already being exposed to a
different rule system. While both monolinguals and bilinguals showed fast learning over
the trials of the first phase, only bilinguals learned in the second phase. Seemingly, 7month-old bilinguals are more efficient in inhibiting a previously learnt rule, and in
switching attention to a new one as compared to monolinguals.