Granularity and the acquisition of grammatical gender: How order-of-acquisition affects what gets learned

Inbal Arnon, Michael Ramscar*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

137 Scopus citations


Why do adult language learners typically fail to acquire second languages with native proficiency? Does prior linguistic experience influence the size of the "units" adults attend to in learning, and if so, how does this influence what gets learned? Here, we examine these questions in relation to grammatical gender, which adult learners almost invariably struggle to master. We present a model of learning that predicts that exposure to smaller units (such as nouns) before exposure to larger linguistic units (such as sentences) can critically impair learning about predictive relations between units: such as that between a noun and its article. This prediction is then confirmed by a study of adult participants learning grammatical gender in an artificial language. Adults learned both nouns and their articles better when they were first heard nouns used in context with their articles prior to hearing the nouns individually, compared with learners who first heard the nouns in isolation, prior to hearing them used in context. In the light of these results, we discuss the role gender appears to play in language, the importance of meaning in artificial grammar learning, and the implications of this work for the structure of L2-training.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)292-305
Number of pages14
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2012
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 0547775 and 0624345 to Michael Ramscar. We are grateful to Melody Dye, Eve Clark, Daniel Jurafsky and Daniel Yarlett for discussion of these ideas.


  • Communication
  • Language
  • Learning
  • Linguistic units
  • Second language acquisition


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