Two experiments investigated learning of nonadjacent dependencies by adults and 18-month-olds. Each learner was exposed to three-element strings (e.g., pel-kicey-jic) produced by one of two artificial languages. Both languages contained the same adjacent dependencies, so learners could distinguish the languages only by acquiring dependencies between the first and third elements (the nonadjacent dependencies). The size of the pool from which the middle elements were drawn was systematically varied to investigate whether increasing variability (in the form of decreasing predictability between adjacent elements) would lead to better detection of nonadjacent dependencies. Infants and adults acquired nonadjacent dependencies only when adjacent dependencies were least predictable. The results point to conditions that might lead learners to focus on nonadjacent versus adjacent dependencies and are important for suggesting how learning might be dynamically guided by statistical structure.
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