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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Statistical learning and the critical period: how a continuous learning mechanism can give rise to discontinuous learning

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Infants and children are generally more successful than adults in learning novel languages, a phenomenon referred to as a critical or sensitive period for language acquisition. One explanation for this critical period is the idea that children have access to a set of language learning processes or mechanisms unavailable to adults. From this perspective, developmental change is explained in terms of a discontinuity of learning processes. We suggest that this is not the only possible explanation for developmental change in language learning outcomes. Instead, we propose that the mechanisms underlying language acquisition (in particular, we highlight statistical learning) are largely continuous across the lifespan. From this perspective, developmental change is explained in terms of experience, differences in the input with age, and maturational changes in the cognitive architecture supporting learning, even while the learning process itself operates continuously across developmental time. WIREs Cogn Sci 2016, 7:276–288. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1394

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