Jenny Saffran, PhD – Slide of the Week

Jenny Saffran, PhD - Slide of the Week

Title: Young children make smart choices when learning words

Legend: Children (aged 3-8) played a word-learning game on a tablet in which they selected aliens and heard their names. Children’s selections were smart – they made choices that served to reduce the ambiguity of the word learning situations in which they found themselves. These data suggest that when given active control over a learning situation, children seek out information that supports learning.

Citation: Zettersten, M., & Saffran, J. R. (2021). Sampling to learn words: Adults and children sample words that reduce referential ambiguity. Developmental Science, 24(3):e13064. doi: 10.1111/desc.13064.

Abstract: How do learners gather new information during word learning? One possibility is that learners selectively sample items that help them reduce uncertainty about new word meanings. In a series of cross-situational word learning tasks with adults and children, we manipulated the referential ambiguity of label-object pairs experienced during training and subsequently investigated which words participants chose to sample additional information about. In the first2 experiment, adult learners chose to receive additional training on object-label associations that reduce referential ambiguity during cross-situational word learning. This ambiguity-reduction strategy was related to improved test performance. In two subsequent experiments, we found that, at least in some contexts, children (3–8 years of age) show a similar preference to seek information about words experienced in ambiguous word learning situations. In Experiment 2, children did not preferentially select object-label associations that remained ambiguous during crosssituational word learning. However, in a third experiment that increased the relative ambiguity of two sets of novel object-label associations, we found evidence that children preferentially make selections that reduce ambiguity about novel word meanings. These results carry implications for understanding how  children actively contribute to their own language development by seeking information that supports learning.

About the Lab: In the Infant Learning Lab, we study how infants discover the structure of their environment, especially language. In the Little Listeners Lab, we study how autistic toddlers learn to understand language.

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