How do you go from the wall of noise that is an unknown language to breaking into it and learning it? Surprisingly, this is not a question with simple answers. It remains a hotly debated issue what the nature of the adult capacity for language learning is, and what factors contribute to learning. Traditionally, the capacity has been gauged by studying language production, and at stages where learners already know a lot. However, arguably, the task of breaking into a new language must start with perceptual processes. To see those at work in their clearest form, we must examine how learners deal with the first moments of contact with an unknown language. A further question that remains unexplored is whether the same factors and processes are at work when the language is not audiovisual (e.g. Swedish) but rather exclusively visual (e.g. Swedish Sign Language). I briefly present a series of studies attempting to probe these issues. Overall, the studies suggest that the adult learning mechanism is more powerful than normally assumed. However, the results also raise questions about the interaction between cognitive and social factors that influence learning, and more fundamental questions about how we define learning.

Marianne Gullberg is a professor of psycholinguistics at Lund University.