Temporal flexibility to orient attention modulates rule learning in childhood

Temporal flexibility to orient attention modulates rule learning in childhood

Anna Martinez-Alvarez 1,2, Pablo Ripolles 1,2, Monica Sanz-Torrent 1, Ferran Pons 1, and Ruth de Diego-Balaguer 1,2,3

1 Department of Cognition, Development and Educational Psychology, Universitat de Barcelona, Spain.

2 Cognition and Brain Plasticity Unit, IDIBELL (Institut d’Investigació Biomèdica de Bellvitge), Spain,

3 ICREA (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies), Barcelona, Spain


While listening to speech, elements in a syntactic dependency do not occur at the same temporal distance since in a non-adjacent dependency (is V-ing) the intermediate element may vary in length (is doing, is remembering, is learning). Hence, in order to learn, we have to be flexible about when to expect the second element of the dependency to appear. We tested the hypothesis that the development of the ability to flexibly orient attention in time may modulate non-adjacent rule learning. To this end, we designed two tasks: a temporal orienting task and a rule-learning task. We tested 92 typically developing children (ranging from 4 to 9 years) and 26 adults. Our results reveal that, irrespective of age, individual differences in temporal attention flexibility appear to be an important factor modulating language performance in childhood. In a second study children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) were tested. We found that, in the rule learning task, SLI children without attention deficits performed significantly better than SLI children with attention deficits. These results suggest that attention deficits in SLI –but not language impairment per se- may have an impact on rule learning. Taken together, our findings suggest that children recruit attentional mechanisms in order to correctly orient attention in time to extract non-adjacent dependencies in language.

Anna Martinez-Alvarez, Pablo Ripolles, Monica Sanz-Torrent, Ferran Pons, & Ruth de Diego-Balaguer