Statistical Learning, Implicit Learning, and First Language Acquisition: A Critical Evaluation of Two Developmental Predictions

Inbal Arnon*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


The role of distributional information in language learning, and learning more generally, has been studied extensively in both the statistical learning and the implicit learning literatures. Despite the similarity in research questions, the two literatures have remained largely separate. Here, we draw on findings from the two traditions to critically evaluate two developmental predictions that are central to both. The first is the question of age invariance: Does learning improve during development or is it fully developed in infancy? The combined findings suggest that both implicit and statistical learning improve during childhood, contra the age invariance prediction. This raises questions about the role of implicit statistical learning (ISL) in explaining the age-related deterioration in language learning: Children's better language learning abilities cannot be attributed to their improved distributional learning skills. The second issue we examine is the predictive relation to language outcomes: Does variation in learning predict variation in language outcomes? While there is evidence for such links, there is concern in both research traditions about the reliability of the tasks used with children. We present data suggesting that commonly used statistical learning measures may not capture stable individual differences in children, undermining their utility for assessing the link to language outcomes in developmental samples. The evaluation of both predictions highlights the empirical parallels between the implicit and statistical learning literatures, and the need to better integrate their developmental investigation. We go on to discuss several of the open challenges facing the study of ISL during development.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)504-519
Number of pages16
JournalTopics in Cognitive Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Cognitive Science Society, Inc.


  • Age invariance
  • Children
  • Implicit learning
  • Individual differences
  • Reliability
  • Statistical learning


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