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Open Access Publications from the University of California

When close isn’t enough: Semantic similarity does not facilitate cross-situational word-learning


Infants’ earliest words are learned by observation of the referent world, but substantial research suggests such learning is highly error-prone. However, recent work suggests that even learners’ incorrect guesses may fall within the correct meaning’s semantic neighborhood—enabling learners to converge on the correct meaning across exposures. Here, we evaluate the semantic similarity of adults’ hypothesized word meanings in a cross-situational word-learning task. We find evidence for a weak semantic neighborhood effect: incorrect guesses are judged as similar to correct meanings (Study 1). However, this effect is not associated with successful word-learning. While learners tend to provide similar, internally consistent guesses across exposures, their accurate guesses are not similar to their previous guesses (Study 2). Moreover, incorrect guesses similar to the target do not increase accuracy on the subsequent exposure (Study 3). These results suggest early word-learning is driven by cues available in-the-moment, not by gradual exploration of semantic space.

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