ST. JOHN, M. F., & GERNSBACHER, M. A. (1998). Learning and losing syntax: Practice makes perfect and frequency builds fortitude. In A. F. Healy & L. E. Bourne, Jr. (Eds.), Foreign language learning: Psycholinguistic experiments on training and retention (pp. 231-255). Mawah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Passive and cleft-object constructions are harder to comprehend and breakdown more easily under stress or brain damage than active and cleft-subject constructions. We contend the reason is because they are simply less frequent and therefore less well practiced. We model this frequency effect using a simple recurrent network architecture (St. John & McClelland, 1990). The model was trained on four sentence constructions (simple active, simple passive, cleft-subject, and cleft-object), with one construction trained more frequently than the others. Generalization to new sentences was high, demonstrating mastery of the syntax rather than memorization of the training instances. The high-frequency construction was mastered first and proved more robust under simulated brain damage. Frequency is a powerful phenomenon in other areas of cognition; we demonstrate its role in language learning.