Study Sheds Light on Passive Language Acquisition

According to a new study published in Scientific Reports, New Zealanders acquire a sort of passive understanding of Māori phonology and phonotactics, despite actively speaking little to none of the language. “Most New Zealanders do not speak Māori, yet are exposed to it throughout their lifetime,” the paper reads. “This exposure leads to a large proto-lexicon—implicit knowledge of the existence of words and sub-word units without any associated meaning.” Māori is a Polynesian language indigenous to New Zealand, where it serves as one of the nation’s official languages alongside English and New Zealand Sign Language; approximately 150,000 people in the country speak it at a conversational level.

Children who are acquiring their first language develop what linguists call a proto-lexicon, a series of sounds and words that they recognize but do not necessarily attach any meaning to. Researchers at the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain, and Behaviour wanted to figure out if ambient exposure to another language throughout an individual’s lifetime (as is the experience most New Zealanders have with Māori) triggered the development of a proto-lexicon in adults. The study consisted of two experiments—in the first experiment, non-Māori-speaking New Zealanders were asked to distinguish between real Māori words and nonwords that shared many phonological characteristics with actual Māori words.

Across the board, the participants were able to tell which stimuli were actual Māori words versus those that simply sounded like Māori words. In the second experiment, the researchers also used participants from Māori-speaking backgrounds, as well as U.S. residents with no Māori exposure. Participants were given a series of Māori-like words and were asked to judge how similar they were to actual Māori words in terms of their phonotactic structure—i.e., whether or not they had a Māori-like “sound,” or cadence, to them. The non-Māori-speaking New Zealanders’ ability to judge this was nearly identical to that of the Māori speakers, whereas U.S. residents were less sensitive in their judgements of the words.

All in all, the researchers determined that the Māori proto-lexicon of non-Māori-speaking New Zealanders could consist of more than 1,000 words in some speakers. The researchers believe speakers who have developed such a proto-lexicon will likely have a significant edge if they choose to actively learn the language.

“Without effort or awareness, listeners build a proto-lexicon based on what they hear around them. For many individuals, it may permanently remain a proto-lexicon,” the paper reads. “For those who are motivated to learn the second language to which they have been exposed, we expect that there is potential for ‘awakening’ the proto-lexicon to more readily attach meanings to the words they already ‘know.’”


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