Does Formal Complexity Reflect Cognitive Complexity? Investigating Aspects of the Chomsky Hierarchy in an Artificial Language Learning Study

Birgit Öttl, Gerhard Jäger, Barbara Kaup

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This study investigated whether formal complexity, as described by the Chomsky Hierarchy, corresponds to cognitive complexity during language learning. According to the Chomsky hierarchy nested dependencies (context free) are less complex than cross-serial dependencies (mildly context sensitive). In two artificial grammar learning (AGL) experiments participants were presented with a language containing either nested or cross-serial dependencies. A learning effect for both types of dependencies could be observed, but no difference between dependency types emerged. These behavioral findings do not seem to reflect complexity differences as described in the Chomsky Hierarchy. This study extends previous findings in demonstrating learning effects for nested and cross-serial dependencies with more natural stimulus materials in a classical AGL paradigm after only one hour of exposure. The current findings can be taken as a starting point for further exploring the degree to which the Chomsky Hierarchy reflects cognitive processes.