Word Learning

Author: Natalia Rivera-Vera
LOT Number: 671
ISBN: 978-94-6093-454-4
Pages: 200
Year: 2024
1st promotor: Prof. dr. Sible Andringa
2nd promotor: Prof. dr. Judith Rispens
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How we learn words has been a long-standing debate in psycholinguistics. Social-pragmatic approaches argue that word learning is underpinned by learners’ social-cognitive abilities, which allow them to determine the communicative intentions of their interlocutors. Associative learning approaches, on the other hand, suggest that word learning is possible thanks to the human ability to track the frequency of co-occurrences between a word and its referent. An intermediate approach is the communicative/intentional framework, which posits that the relationship between a word and its referent is mediated by the speaker's intention to refer to a particular (set of) object(s). The studies presented in this dissertation take this assumption as their theoretical backdrop and pose two general research questions: 1) to what extent do social-pragmatic cues affect cross-situational word learning?; and 2) when in time do social-pragmatic effects emerge when learning words across situations?

We designed five experiments that tested the effects of speaker reliability and  speaker informativeness on cross-situational word learning. The results neither support nor contradict the hypothesis that exposure to an unreliable speaker results in learning fewer words and/or relying on associative learning mechanisms. Furthermore, the evidence that participants were sensitive to speaker reliability was inconsistent. However, when the effect of speaker informativeness on word learning was measured over time (by means of an eye-tracker), the results showed that speaker informativeness influenced the initial selection of objects as potential referents. This finding highlights the importance of fine-grained measures when studying how we learn words.

How we learn words has been a long-standing debate in psycholinguistics. Social-pragmatic approaches argue that word learning is underpinned by learners’ social-cognitive abilities, which allow them to determine the communicative intentions of their interlocutors. Associative learning approaches, on the other hand, suggest that word learning is possible thanks to the human ability to track the frequency of co-occurrences between a word and its referent. An intermediate approach is the communicative/intentional framework, which posits that the relationship between a word and its referent is mediated by the speaker's intention to refer to a particular (set of) object(s). The studies presented in this dissertation take this assumption as their theoretical backdrop and pose two general research questions: 1) to what extent do social-pragmatic cues affect cross-situational word learning?; and 2) when in time do social-pragmatic effects emerge when learning words across situations?

We designed five experiments that tested the effects of speaker reliability and  speaker informativeness on cross-situational word learning. The results neither support nor contradict the hypothesis that exposure to an unreliable speaker results in learning fewer words and/or relying on associative learning mechanisms. Furthermore, the evidence that participants were sensitive to speaker reliability was inconsistent. However, when the effect of speaker informativeness on word learning was measured over time (by means of an eye-tracker), the results showed that speaker informativeness influenced the initial selection of objects as potential referents. This finding highlights the importance of fine-grained measures when studying how we learn words.

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