Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
Spoken language contains overlapping patterns across different levels, from syllables to words to phrases. The discovery of these structures may be partially supported by statistical learning (SL), the unguided, automatic extraction of regularities from the environment through passive exposure. SL supports word learning in artificial language experiments, but few studies have examined whether it scales up to support natural language learning in adult second language learners. Here, adult English speakers (n = 70) listened to daily podcasts in either Italian or English for two weeks while going about their normal routines. To measure word knowledge, participants provided familiarity ratings of Italian words and nonwords both before and after the listening period. Critically, compared to English controls, Italian listeners significantly improved in their ability to discriminate Italian words and nonwords. These results suggest that unguided exposure to natural, foreign language speech supports the extraction of relevant word features and the development of nascent word forms. At a theoretical level, these findings indicate that SL may effectively scale up to support real world language acquisition. These results also have important practical implications, suggesting that adult learners may be able to acquire relevant speech patterns and initial word forms simply by listening to the language. This form of learning can occur without explicit effort, formal instruction or focused study.
Available for download on Friday, September 15, 2023