Infants avoid ‘labouring in vain’ by attending more to learnable than unlearnable linguistic patterns
Every environment contains infinite potential features and correlations among features, or patterns. Detecting valid and learnable patterns in one environment is beneficial for learners because doing so lends predictability to new environments where the same or analogous patterns recur. However, some apparent correlations among features reflect spurious patterns, and attempting to learn the latter costs time and resources with no advantage to the learner. Thus, an efficient learner in a complex environment needs to devote more attention to input that reflects a real and learnable pattern than to input that reflects a spurious or ultimately unlearnable pattern. However, in order to achieve such efficiency in the absence of external feedback, learners need to have an implicit metric of their own learning progress. Do human infants have such a metric? Data from two experiments demonstrate that 17-month-olds attend longer to learnable vs. unlearnable linguistic grammars, taking more trials to habituate and more overall time to habituate for grammars in which a valid generalization over input stimuli can be made. These data provide the first evidence that infants have an implicit metric of their own learning progress and preferentially direct their attention to learnable aspects of their environment.