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Rift of Gab: Speech insights spark statistical static

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9:41am, August 29, 2002

The heated debate over how people acquire language burns on. A new study suggests that adults can exploit patterns in an artificial language to discern novel nonsense words in a stream of syllables, but use a different mental computation to discover rules governing the construction of those words.

This finding supports the theory that people are born with a brain-based grasp of grammar, say psychologist Jacques Mehler of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, and his colleagues. That capacity, including the underlying logic of word construction, doesn't depend on the mental calculations used to recognize individual words, say the researchers.

"Even though learners can compute powerful statistical relations" between elements of a language, they don't use this capability to learn grammar, the researchers theorize in an upcoming Science.

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