Systematicity, but not compositionality: Examining the emergence of linguistic structure in children and adults using iterated learning

Limor Raviv*, Inbal Arnon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Recent work suggests that cultural transmission can lead to the emergence of linguistic structure as speakers’ weak individual biases become amplified through iterated learning. However, to date no published study has demonstrated a similar emergence of linguistic structure in children. The lack of evidence from child learners constitutes a problematic gap in the literature: if such learning biases impact the emergence of linguistic structure, they should also be found in children, who are the primary learners in real-life language transmission. However, children may differ from adults in their biases given age-related differences in general cognitive skills. Moreover, adults’ performance on iterated learning tasks may reflect existing (and explicit) linguistic biases, partially undermining the generality of the results. Examining children's performance can also help evaluate contrasting predictions about their role in emerging languages: do children play a larger or smaller role than adults in the creation of structure? Here, we report a series of four iterated artificial language learning studies (based on Kirby, Cornish & Smith, 2008) with both children and adults, using a novel child-friendly paradigm. Our results show that linguistic structure does not emerge more readily in children compared to adults, and that adults are overall better in both language learning and in creating linguistic structure. When languages could become underspecified (by allowing homonyms), children and adults were similar in developing consistent mappings between meanings and signals in the form of structured ambiguities. However, when homonimity was not allowed, only adults created compositional structure. This study is a first step in using iterated language learning paradigms to explore child-adult differences. It provides the first demonstration that cultural transmission has a different effect on the languages produced by children and adults: While children were able to develop systematicity, their languages did not show compositionality. We focus on the relation between learning and structure creation as a possible explanation for our findings and discuss implications for children's role in the emergence of linguistic structure.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)160-173
Number of pages14
StatePublished - Dec 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Elsevier B.V.


  • Age-related differences
  • Cultural transmission
  • Iterated learning
  • Language learning
  • Linguistic structure


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