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Have I seen you here before? Exploring the role of cross-situational information in word learning

  • Author(s): Bunce, John Patrick
  • Advisor(s): Scott, Rose M
  • et al.
Abstract

New words are typically encountered in complex environments rife with possible meanings. Recent evidence suggests that cross-situational observation, or tracking which potential referents consistently co-occur with each word, could help learners identify a word’s true referent (Scott & Fisher, 2012; Yu & Smith, 2007). Considerable questions remain about the mechanism by which this occurs and the how this information interacts with other word-learning information sources. Here, I present a series of projects that explored three such questions. Project 1 sought to determine whether learners encode more than one potential referent across occurrences of a given word. Participants’ mouse trajectories were slower, less accurate, and more complex when they had to choose between the target referent and a competitor that repeatedly occurred with the word. This suggests that participants were aware that both the target and competitor had occurred with the word. This finding indicates that learners can retain multiple potential referents for a word and mouse tracking provides a promising way of assessing this knowledge. However, this knowledge was not evident in participants’ finger movements, suggesting that finger tracking might not capture real-time competition between referents. Project 2 asked whether social information facilitates 2-year-olds’ cross-situational verb learning. The results suggested that gaze may enable 25-month-olds to use cross-situational information when they would otherwise be unable to do so. However, children may only benefit when the novel verb and gaze information are both provided by a live speaker in a social interaction. Project 3 tested whether perceptual salience impacts children’s cross-situational verb learning. The results suggested that 2.5-year-olds can use cross-situational information to identify low-salience referents for intransitive verbs, even when they co-occur with high-salience alternatives. However, this learning is easily masked by interest in more salient events.

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