Unexpectedness makes a sociolinguistic variant easier to learn: An alien-language-learning experiment

AbstractWe report two artificial-language-learning experiments investigating if sociolinguistic acquisition is facilitated by two kinds of expectation violation: encountering a variant (a) for the first time or (b) in an ungrammatical context. Participants learned an artificial language with two dialects spoken by two alien species: Gulus and Norls. The two dialects differed with regard to a plural suffix: Gulus mostly used -dup, and Norls mostly used -nup. In training, participants first learned the language without aliens to establish prior experience, and were then exposed to it with alien interlocutors. In Experiment 1 we manipulated whether -nup occurred in the first stage and, in Experiment 2, its linguistic conditioning. In test, sociolinguistic learning was evaluated by asking participants to select suffixes given aliens and vice versa. We found that sociolinguistic learning was facilitated in both cases. In Experiment 2, however, participants only experienced facilitation if they learned the original grammatical context. Our results provide laboratory evidence that unexpectedness facilitates the learning of sociolinguistic variation.

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