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Language learning, language use, and the evolution of linguistic structure

Wednesday, November 22, 2017, 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm

Language is a product of learning in individuals, and universal structural features of language presumably reflect properties of the way in which we learn. But language is not necessarily a direct reflection of properties of individual learners: languages are culturally-transmitted systems, which persist in populations via a repeated cycle of learning and use, where learners learn from linguistic data which represents the communicative behaviour of other individuals who learnt their language in the same way. Languages evolve as a result of their cultural transmission, and are therefore the product of a potentially complex interplay between the biases of human language learners, the communicative functions which language serves, and the ways in which languages are transmitted in populations. In this talk I will present a series of experiments, based around artificial language learning, dyadic interaction and iterated learning paradigms, which allow us to explore the relationship between learning and use in shaping linguistic structure; I will finish with an experimental study looking at cultural evolution in non-human primates, which suggests that systematic structure may be an inevitable outcome of cultural transmission, rather than a reflection of uniquely human learning biases.