The prevalence of redundancy in the world languages has long puzzled language researchers. It is especially surprising in light of the growing evidence on speakers' tendency to avoid redundant elements in production (omitting or reducing more predictable elements). Here, we propose that redundancy can be functional for learning. In particular, we argue that redundant cues can facilitate learning, even when they make the language system more complicated. This prediction is further motivated by the Linguistic Niche Hypothesis (Lupyan & Dale, 2010), which suggests that morphological complexity can arise due to the advantage redundancy might confer for child learners. We test these hypotheses in an artificial language learning study with children and adults, where either word order alone or both word order and case marking serve as cues for thematic assignment in a novel construction. We predict, and find, that children learning the redundant language learn to produce it, and show better comprehension of the novel thematic assignment than children learning the non-redundant language, despite having to learn an additional morpheme. Children in both conditions were similarly accurate in producing the novel word order, suggesting redundancy might have a differential effect on comprehension and production. Adults did not show better learning in the redundant condition, most likely because they were at ceiling in both conditions. We discuss implications for theories of language learning and language change.
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- Artificial language learning
- Language acquisition
- Learning biases