Experience with a linguistic variant affects the acquisition of its sociolinguistic meaning: An alien-language-learning experiment
Wei Lai, Péter Rácz, Gareth Roberts
February 2020

How do speakers learn the social meaning of different linguistic variants, and what factors influence how likely a particular social–linguistic association is to be learned? It has been argued that the social meaning of more salient variants should be learned faster, and that learners' pre-existing experience of a variant will influence its salience. In this paper we report two artificial-language-learning experiments investigating this. Each experiment involved two language learning stages followed by a test. The first stage introduced the artificial language and trained participants in it, while the second stage added a simple social context using images of cartoon aliens. The first learning stage was intended to establish participants' experience with the artificial language in general and with the distribution of linguistic variants in particular. The second stage, in which linguistic stimuli were accompanied by images of particular aliens, was intended to simulate the acquisition of linguistic variants in a social context. In our first experiment we manipulated whether a particular linguistic variant, associated with one species of alien in the second learning phase, had been encountered in the first learning phase. In the second experiment we manipulated whether the variant had been encountered in the same grammatical context. In both cases we predicted that the unexpectedness of a new variant or a new grammatical context for an old variant would increase the variant's salience and facilitate the learning of its social meaning. This is what we found, although in the second experiment, the effect was driven by better learners. Our results suggest that unexpectedness increases the salience of variants and makes their social distribution easier to learn, deepening our understanding of the role of individual language experience in the acquisition of sociolinguistic meaning.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/005049
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: Cognitive Science
keywords: artificial-language learning; social meaning; sociolinguistics; salience; surprisal; expectation violation, morphology, phonology
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