The advantage of starting big: Learning from unsegmented input facilitates mastery of grammatical gender in an artificial language

Noam Siegelman, Inbal Arnon*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Why is it difficult to learn a second language as an adult? We focus on the way adults' existing knowledge of words impacts L2 learning. We suggest adults' prior knowledge leads them to rely less on multiword units, and that this hinders learning certain grammatical relations between words. We test this prediction in two artificial language learning studies of grammatical gender with adult learners. In the first study, we manipulate whether the artificial language is segmented during initial learning and show that learning from unsegmented input leads to more article-noun units, and to better learning. Individually, learners who were more likely to treat the article and noun as one unit showed better learning on an off-line measure, confirming the link between unit-size and learning outcomes. In the second study, we show this pattern does not hold when the article conveys semantic information (animate vs. inanimate), illustrating the way unit size interacts with informativity during learning. The findings provide novel evidence for the advantage of learning grammar from multiword units, highlight the benefit of learning segmentation and structure simultaneously, and offer an experience-based explanation for L1-L2 differences that relates building blocks to learning outcomes.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)60-75
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank Alex B. Fine for statistical advice and extensive feedback, Ram Frost, Stewart M. McCauley & Morten H. Christiansen for helpful discussions, and Tamar Johnson for her help in conducting the experiments. This work was supported by ISF grant number 527/12 awarded to IA.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Elsevier Inc.


  • Adult L2 learning
  • Grammatical gender
  • Language learning
  • Multiword units
  • Second language learning


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