Literacy affects many aspects of cognitive and linguistic processing. Among them, it increases the salience of words as units of linguistic processing. Here, we explored the impact of literacy acquisition on children’s learning of an artifical language. Recent accounts of L1–L2 differences relate adults’ greater difficulty with language learning to their smaller reliance on multiword units. In particular, multiword units are claimed to be beneficial for learning opaque grammatical relations like grammatical gender. Since literacy impacts the reliance on words as units of processing, we ask if and how acquiring literacy may change children’s language-learning results. We looked at children’s success in learning novel noun labels relative to their success in learning article-noun gender agreement, before and after learning to read. We found that preliterate first graders were better at learning agreement (larger units) than at learning nouns (smaller units), and that the difference between the two trial types significantly decreased after these children acquired literacy. In contrast, literate third graders were as good in both trial types. These findings suggest that literacy affects not only language processing, but also leads to important differences in language learning. They support the idea that some of children’s advantage in language learning comes from their previous knowledge and experience with language—and specifically, their lack of experience with written texts.
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This work was supported by ISF Grant 52712 (to IA). The authors thank the schools, teachers, parents, and children for their cooperation. We thank the research assistants who helped administer the tasks: Tamar Johnson, Ruth Goldberg, and Yaron Shapira.
Conflict of interest
On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.
Appendix 1: The guidelines for scoring childrens paragraph reading from recordings
Scores were given in two scales, fluency and confidence. For each scale, the minimum score was 0 and the maximum score was 3, amounting to an overall score ranging from 0 to 6.
0—Did not read the paragraph.
1—Read slowly, backtracked, did not understand what they were reading (this is sometimes obvious from how the experimenter is reacting), asked for help from the experimenter. Read words incorrectly and did not try to correct themselves.
2—Started slowly but picked up the pace. Still found it hard to decipher word meanings. Sometimes read the same thing twice, faster the second time.
3—Read comfortably, relatively fast, little difficulty in understanding.
0—Did not read the paragraph.
1—Said they do not want to or cannot read (but still agreed to try). If a child did not finish reading the paragraph they will also be given 1, even if they did not hesitate to try.
2—Tried, but was uncertain of their abilities. Asked questions throughout the process. Tried and read (not fluently), but showed no confidence.
3—Approached the paragraph reading without hesitation.
Appendix 2: Stimuli used for the artificial language learning task
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Havron, N., Raviv, L. & Arnon, I. Literate and preliterate children show different learning patterns in an artificial language learning task. J Cult Cogn Sci 2, 21–33 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41809-018-0015-9
- Language learning
- Artificial language
- Linguistic units