How do tunes and rhymes find their way into our heads? Although repetition seems to be important for any type of learning, patterns of words and tunes seem to have an almost magnetic quality in the way that they spontaneously stick in the mind. This type of learning is extremely powerful. It’s known as implicit learning as it appears to require no effort at all.
Scholars have identified the importance of implicit learning for infant language development. In fact, they have revealed that infants are naturally sensitive to the distribution and frequency of patterns. The power of this, so-called statistical learning was clearly demonstrated when infants responded to rhythmic patterns in language, even when the natural intonation or prosodic features in speech had been removed (Saffran et al., 1996).
It seems that implicit language learning is a natural response to regular occurrences such as rhythmic patterns and sequences in the sounds of language. Infants hear these in their everyday exposure to language and also by producing patterns through babbling. According to Vihman (2015), this is why the development of language is to a degree, individual for each infant. A virtuous cycle soon develops once infants have realised that things around them have names and begin to learn words more deliberately and explicitly, storing phonological representations of words as symbolic, semantic associations. Language learning continues as infants identify probabilistic patterns within words, again through implicit learning and this leads to sensitivity and production of grammatical structure. Isn’t the strength, power and universality of these processes absolutely remarkable?
Saffran, Jenny R., Richard N. Aslin, and Elissa L. Newport (1996). “Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants.” Science 274.5294, 1926-1928.
Vihman, M. (2015) Handbook of Language Emergence. MacWhinney, B. & O’Grady, W. (eds.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 437-457