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Keywords:

  • Artificial grammar learning;
  • Non-adjacent dependencies;
  • Crossed;
  • Nested;
  • Implicit learning

Abstract

A recent hypothesis in empirical brain research on language is that the fundamental difference between animal and human communication systems is captured by the distinction between finite-state and more complex phrase-structure grammars, such as context-free and context-sensitive grammars. However, the relevance of this distinction for the study of language as a neurobiological system has been questioned and it has been suggested that a more relevant and partly analogous distinction is that between non-adjacent and adjacent dependencies. Online memory resources are central to the processing of non-adjacent dependencies as information has to be maintained across intervening material. One proposal is that an external memory device in the form of a limited push-down stack is used to process non-adjacent dependencies. We tested this hypothesis in an artificial grammar learning paradigm where subjects acquired non-adjacent dependencies implicitly. Generally, we found no qualitative differences between the acquisition of non-adjacent dependencies and adjacent dependencies. This suggests that although the acquisition of non-adjacent dependencies requires more exposure to the acquisition material, it utilizes the same mechanisms used for acquiring adjacent dependencies. We challenge the push-down stack model further by testing its processing predictions for nested and crossed multiple non-adjacent dependencies. The push-down stack model is partly supported by the results, and we suggest that stack-like properties are some among many natural properties characterizing the underlying neurophysiological mechanisms that implement the online memory resources used in language and structured sequence processing.