Our knowledge of language could fit on a floppy disk (remember them?)

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It might seem surprising, but our knowledge of language could almost fit on a good old floppy disk, according to US researchers. The average English-speaking adult has learned 12.5 million bits, or around 1.5 megabytes, of information, and most of this is just word definitions. The researchers analysed different aspects of language and found the average learner extracts nearly 2,000 bits of information about how language works every day for 18 years.

Journal/conference: Royal Society Open Science

Organisation/s: University of Rochester, USA

Media Release

From: The Royal Society

Humans store ~1.5 megabytes during language acquisition: information theoretic bounds 

We introduce theory-neutral estimates of the amount of information learners know about how language works. We provide estimates at several levels of linguistic analysis: phonemes, wordforms, lexical semantics, word frequency and syntax. Our best guess is that the average English-speaking adult has learned 12.5 million bits of information, the majority of which is lexical semantics. Interestingly, very little of this information is syntactic, even in our upper bound analyses. Generally, our results suggest that learners possess remarkable inferential mechanisms capable of extracting, on average, nearly 2000 bits of information about how language works each day for 18 years.


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