Language for $200: success in the environment influences grammatical alignment

Shiri Lev Ari, Sharon Peperkamp

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Speakers constantly learn language from the environment by sampling their linguistic input and adjusting their representations accordingly. Logically, people should attend more to the environment and adjust their behavior in accordance with it more the lower their success in the environment is. We test whether the learning of linguistic input follows this general principle in two studies: a corpus analysis of a TV game show, Jeopardy, and a laboratory task modeled after Go Fish. We show that lower (non-linguistic) success in the task modulates learning of and reliance on linguistic patterns in the environment. In Study 1, we find that poorer performance increases conformity with linguistic norms, as reflected by increased preference for frequent grammatical structures. In Study 2, which consists of a more interactive setting, poorer performance increases learning from the immediate social environment, as reflected by greater repetition of others’ grammatical structures. We propose that these results have implications for models of language production and language learning and for the propagation of language change. In particular, they suggest that linguistic changes might spread more quickly in times of crisis, or when the gap between more and less successful people is larger. The results might also suggest that innovations stem from successful individuals while their propagation would depend on relatively less successful individuals. We provide a few historical examples that are in line with the first suggested implication, namely, that the spread of linguistic changes is accelerated during difficult times, such as war time and an economic downturn.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)177-187
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Language Evolution
Issue number2
Early online date25 Jan 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2017

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