Language Learning

The ability to learn new words is a fundamental skill for modern humans. However, our understanding of both initial word learning and consolidation for long-term storage/integration into the mental lexicon is ​limited. Finding answers to these questions would have important implications for theories in the domains of language and memory processing.

Current Work.

Uncovering the Role of Sleep in the Acquisition and Generalisation of Linguistic Knowledge.

One remarkable aspect of human learning is our ability to build general knowledge from individual experiences. This is central to virtually all cognitive functions, but it is particularly important in language, because it allows us to use new words, phrases, and sentences that have not been communicated previously. For example, we understand the novel word 'untweetable' because we have general knowledge about the functions of the affixes; {un} and {able}. However, despite the significance of this form of knowledge for human communication, we know remarkably little about how it is acquired. Furthermore, recent research provides strong clues that sleep may play a vital role in the acquisition of general linguistic knowledge and demonstrated that, although new memories for individual items can be acquired rapidly, the process of discovering regularities across individual items to permit generalisation requires a period of overnight memory consolidation - a process which is thought to involve new memories being replayed during sleep (Tamminen et al., 2015). Additionally, as international research has shown that the UK has one of the largest proportions of children who are sleep-deprived, and that more than a quarter of the UK population gets on average less than five hours of sleep nightly, it is vitally important to consider the consequences of poor sleep for learning and memory.


In an ERSC-funded project, Dr Jakke Tamminen, Prof Kathy Rastle, and colleagues are attempting to discover whether sleep is the critical factor in the acquisition of general linguistic knowledge, and further, to describe the neural processes arising during sleep that facilitate this form of learning. Specifically, the current project investigates: (1) the acquisition of item-specific and general knowledge when there is an overnight sleep or daytime wake delay between training and testing; (2) how sleep deprivation before or after training impacts on the acquisition of item-specific and general linguistic knowledge; and (3) the memory reactivation of newly-learned linguistic information during sleep exploiting olfactory paradigm. Finally, the project uses polysomnography to assess the importance of particular sleep stages or neural events during sleep for different forms of learning.

Key Reference:

Tamminen, J., Davis, M. H. & Rastle, K. (2015).  From specific examples to general knowledge in language learning. Cognitive Psychology, 79, 1-39. [PDF]

Previous Work.


The Role of Semantics in Acquiring Novel Phonological Representations.

We are beginning to understand the general processes underpinning adult spoken word learning. For example, despite apparently fast initial learning, a period of offline memory consolidation is required for newly-learnt words to be integrated into our existing store of known, 'lexicalised' words. However, relatively little is known what specifically influences this process, and the extent to which success depends on particular learning conditions (such as the presence of meaning, or deployment of attention to the phonological level of representation during learning). In her PhD work, supervised by Kathy Rastle and Duncan Astle (MRC CBU), Erin Hawkins asks what is the role of meaning in acquiring novel phonological representations? Does the presence of semantic information during learning modulate the consolidation process newly-learnt words undergo? To understand these processes she uses behavioural and EEG techniques to measure phonological and lexical representations, both immediately and after a period of offline consolidation. 

Key References:

Hawkins, E.A. & Rastle, K. (2016).  How does the provision of semantic information influence the lexicalization of new spoken words? Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69, 1322-1339. [PDF]

Hawkins, E., Astle, D. E., & Rastle, K. (2015). Semantic advantage for learning new phonological form representations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27, 775-786. [PDF]