Mini paper review: Experience, aptitude and individual differences in native language ultimate attainment

Welcome to our new series of blogposts, each providing a brief and accessible review of a recently published academic paper relating to language and literacy development. For our first review, Helen Norris, PhD student at the Institute of Education reviews a recent paper on grammar learning in native speakers.

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I recently came across this fascinating article while reading around the context of the vexed question of whether formal grammar teaching is necessary to support the literacy development of native speakers of English at primary school, (for a review see Myhill, 2018).

Second language learning research has often focused on learners’ ability to understand, acquire and gain mastery of the grammatical rules of a language.

But the question of whether people vary in their ability to learn grammatical rules of their native language has largely remained unconsidered for native speakers.

To some extent, Dabrowska points out, this depends on whether you favour a ‘universal grammar’ explanation of language acquisition: the idea that there is one coherent body of grammatical knowledge that all humans possess innately. This theory would predict that there would be little difference between humans in their grammatical knowledge and ability to use it.

Dabrowska, on the other hand, leans towards a usage-based theory of language, which says that our knowledge is shaped by the input we receive and the experiences we have with language.

What did the study involve?

90 adult native speakers of English took part in the study. They were measured on their non-verbal IQ using a block pattern test and their language aptitude, specifically their ability to infer linguistic rules from the input. Here a novel language test was used where learners had to infer novel grammatical rules. Notably, this is a test commonly used to explore second language learning ability.

Two input factors were also measured: their print exposure, measured by author recognition test, and their education level. Finally, in addition to measures of vocabulary and collocations knowledge, their

grammar knowledge was measured using a picture and sentence test: participants were shown a series of pictures and had to match the correct sentence. The sentences included basic grammatical constructions that are commonly found in speech, (eg simple locative: ‘The spoon is in the cup.’) and more complex constructions, (eg passive: ‘The girl was fed by the man.’)

What were the findings?

Dabrowska found that there were significant individual differences in how well participants knew the constructions in the grammar tests, which provides some evidence that incomplete grammar acquisition exists. How much they had read predicted some of the variance in how they performed in the grammar test. There was a relationship between the language aptitude test and the grammar test, which is interesting because this was a test used to research second language learning ability and performance!

What can we conclude?

That native speakers differ in how well they know and use the basic grammatical constructions of their native language. These differences are related to both the input the speakers receive and their cognitive abilities.

And what are the wider implications of this?

We know that children differ in reading and writing ability and vocabulary knowledge. But how much do we know about how children differ in their grammatical knowledge and their ability to learn grammatical rules? The answer is very little. This study looked at grammatical knowledge in adults, using constructions that are commonly found in speech. Had the study included more constructions that are more commonly found in written text, the author speculates that she would have found even greater individual differences. Would she have found the same pattern of results if she had looked at children’s grammatical knowledge? These questions are all the more relevant right now because of the amount of complex formal grammar that children are being taught at primary school in preparation for the Spelling Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG) Test. Who benefits most and how does their mastery of grammar relate to their reading ability and experience?

Full reference: Dąbrowska, E. (2018). Experience, aptitude and individual differences in native language ultimate attainment. Cognition178, 222-235.

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