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Thesis Format



Master of Science




Batterink, Laura J.


Relative to adults, children have a well-known advantage for learning linguistic regularities, which could be partially driven by their deeper sleep. To examine the relationship between consolidation and language learning across development, children and adults learned a novel article system with an implicit grammatical rule. Participants performed a judgment task on phrases containing the novel articles before and after a night of EEG-monitored sleep. We found that rule sensitivity emerged rapidly in children, whereas it did not emerge until the second session in adults. Children demonstrated better generalization of the rule than adults. Consolidation effects showed a developmental double dissociation, with children showing gains in explicit knowledge and adults showing gains in implicit knowledge after consolidation. Sleep physiology was not associated with any between-session changes. Our results suggest that children’s language learning advantage is more related to their enhanced sensitivity to implicit structures during initial learning, than to subsequent consolidation.

Summary for Lay Audience

Humans spend much of their lives asleep, and one of sleep’s crucial functions is aiding in the consolidation of newly learned information. The structure of sleep changes dramatically over the course of development, with children exhibiting much deeper sleep than adults. This type of deep sleep is thought to be particularly important for memory consolidation. In addition, children have an advantage over adults for learning new languages, particularly in terms of grammar and ultimate linguistic proficiency. It is unclear if children’s deeper sleep may play a role in the consolidation of grammar, thus partially driving children’s language learning advantage. This thesis investigated the role of sleep in language learning across development by having children (8-10 years) and adults learn a novel miniature language with a hidden grammatical rule before and after a night of sleep, during which their sleep stages were recorded. The grammatical rule was learned implicitly through repeated exposure. Children were able to implicitly and rapidly learn this hidden linguistic rule, whereas adults did not show evidence of implicit learning until the next morning, after a period of consolidation containing sleep. Children also improved in their explicit knowledge of the novel language after this period, whereas adults did not. Finally, children were able to generalize the grammatical rule to new contexts better than adults, although this advantage was not directly supported by consolidation. Our results suggest that children’s advantage for language learning is more related to their enhanced sensitivity to implicit linguistic structures, which occurs during initial learning, than to subsequent sleep-dependent consolidation mechanisms. This research can help inform theories of language learning and sleep-dependent consolidation across development.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.