Sleep May Solve Grammar Gremlins

Beinecke Library

Do you know when to use who versus whom? Affect versus effect? If you’re stumped, first crack open your textbook, but then make sure to get a good night’s sleep – it could help! According to newly published research, sleep plays an important part in learning grammar, and perhaps other complex rules as well.

In their study the researchers used an invented grammar to develop sets of letter sequences. They also assessed each sequence for its “associative chunk strength,” or memorable letter clusters. Sequences with lots of these “chunks” could be easy to memorize, which the authors differentiate from learning, or rule acquisition. Participants were then shown these sequences and asked to recreate them from memory. They were not told that the letter sequences were constructed according to a set of grammatical rules.

The participants then waited 15 minutes, 12 hours, or 24 hours before being tested to see whether they had retained or learned the rules. Participants in the 12 hour group that started in the evening and those in the 24 hour group slept between experimental phases. When the testing began, participants were told that grammatical rules were in use and asked to judge whether letter sequences were grammatical.

Participants that slept between stages, i.e. those in the 12 hour and 24 hour groups, performed significantly better than those who did not sleep prior to the test. Specifically, those who slept between tests were better able to discern grammatical from not-grammatical letter sequences. The same was true for letter sequences with fewer chunks of memorable letter clusters. Their results also indicate that the length of the waiting period, whether it was 15 minutes or hours, did not significantly affect the participants’ performance.

Students, the next time you think you can forgo a good night’s sleep, think again! Sleep may just help you learn those tricky grammatical rules.

Citation: Nieuwenhuis ILC, Folia V, Forkstam C, Jensen O, Petersson KM (2013) Sleep Promotes the Extraction of Grammatical Rules. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65046. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065046

Image: Childrens talk, English & Latin by Beinecke Library.

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3 Responses to Sleep May Solve Grammar Gremlins

  1. Thanks! Also see my webpage, where I write about this paper.
    http://www.ingridnieuwenhuis.nl/?file=kop2.php

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