Multilingualism Research Forum/Flerspråklighetsforum: Does the word order of languages change sequential learning and processing?

Luca Onnis (Associate Professor, MultiLing) will discuss how basic sequence learning and processing mechanisms become attuned to the canonical word order imposed by natural languages.

Luca Onnis smiling and wearing a white shirt and black jacket.

Luca Onnis


A long-standing debate in the cognitive and linguistic sciences is whether and to what extent language shapes cognition. I propose that basic sequence learning and processing mechanisms become attuned to the canonical word order imposed by natural languages.

For example, left-branching (LB) and right-branching (RB) languages are differentially predictive of linear and constituent word order, placing a parsing emphasis on predictive/forward-looking (LB) or retrodictive/backward-looking (RB) conditional probabilities between words (Onnis & Thiessen, 2013). Consistent with this observation, I show that in implicit learning tasks English and Korean adults and infants process novel sequences of pseudowords differently, favouring prediction (Korean) and retrodiction (English) respectively (Thiessen et al., 2019).

This suggests that statistical learning rapidly adapts to the predominant syntactic structure of the native language. Such adaptation may facilitate subsequent learning by highlighting statistical structures that are likely to be informative in the native linguistic environment. Indeed, in two self-paced reading tasks and an eye-tracking reading task involving natural language sentences, adult English native speakers used retrodictive word relations to achieve more fluent reading (Onnis et al., 2022; Onnis, & Huettig, 2021).

Given the prevalent view that the brain is inherently a ‘prediction machine’ (Clark, 2013), these findings are of general theoretical importance for reevaluating retrodiction mechanisms more as a cognitive principle, and I propose ways to further integrate its role in future research.


Clark, A. (2013). Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences36(3), 181-204.

Onnis, L., & Thiessen, E. (2013). Language experience changes subsequent learning. Cognition126(2), 268-284.

Onnis, L., & Huettig, F. (2021). Can prediction and retrodiction explain whether frequent multi-word phrases are accessed ‘precompiled’from memory or compositionally constructed on the fly?. Brain Research1772, 147674.

Onnis, L., Lim, A., & Huettig, F. (2022). What does it mean to say the mind is inherently forward looking? Exploring probabilistic integration in language processing. Manuscript under revision.

Thiessen, E. D., Onnis, L., Hong, S. J., & Lee, K. S. (2019). Early developing syntactic knowledge influences sequential statistical learning in infancy. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology177, 211-221.


Luca Onnis holds an M.A. in Translation Studies from the University of Bologna, Italy, and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Warwick, UK. He was a Research Associate at Cornell University, and held professorial positions at the University of Hawaii (USA), Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), and the University of Genoa (Italy). He founded two Psycholinguistics labs and was Director of the Centre for Second Language Acquisition. He has won several prestigious grants from the European Research Council (ERC), the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the Singapore National Research Foundation, for a total of 6M Euros. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Cultural Cognitive Science.
Published Apr. 5, 2022 3:21 PM - Last modified Apr. 5, 2022 3:21 PM