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Language Ability Linked to Pattern Recognition

The ability to recognize patterns may be key in picking up a new language. (Photo: Jess Ivy, Creative Commons)
The ability to learn a second language may depend less on linguistic skills and more on the ability to recognize patterns, according to new research.

“These new results suggest that learning a second language is determined to a large extent by an individual ability that is not at all linguistic,” says Ram Frost of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who conducted the study.

In the study, researchers used different tasks to measure how American students recognized the structure of words and sounds in Hebrew. The students were tested in two consecutive semesters.

The students were also tested in their ability to spot statistical patterns in visual stimuli. Participants watched a stream of complex shapes shown one at a time. What the students did not know was that the shapes were organized into eight triplets. The order of the triplets was randomized, but each triplet always appeared in the same sequence. After viewing the stream, students were tested to see if they’d picked up the pattern.

The results showed a “strong statistical association” between recognizing patterns in the shapes and learning another language.

“It’s surprising that a short 15-minute test involving the perception of visual shapes could predict to such a large extent which of the students who came to study Hebrew would finish the year with a better grasp of the language,” says Frost.

The findings could have broader implications beyond language learning.

“This finding points to the possibility that a unified and universal principle of statistical learning can quantitatively explain a wide range of cognitive processes across domains, whether they are linguistic or non-linguistic,” concluded the researchers.

The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.