Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

A Bottom-Up View of Toddler Word Learning

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

A Bottom-Up View of Toddler Word Learning

Article excerpt

Published online: 28 June 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract A head camera was used to examine the visual correlates of object name learning by toddlers as they played with novel objects and as the parent spontaneously named those objects. The toddlers' learning of the object names was tested after play, and the visual properties of the head camera images during naming events associated with learned and unlearned object names were analyzed. Naming events associated with learning had a clear visual signature, one in which the visual information itself was clean and visual competition among objects was minimized. Moreover, for learned object names, the visual advantage of the named target over competitors was sustained, both before and after the heard name. The findings are discussed in terms of the visual and cognitive processes that may depend on clean sensory input for learning and also on the sensory-motor, cognitive, and social processes that may create these optimal visual moments for learning.

Keywords Visual attention . Language comprehension . Word recognition

Children learn their first object names by linking a heard word to a seen thing. Contemporary theories all assume that the learning environment is noisy, with scenes containing several potential referents for a heard name. Different theories posit different mechanisms through which young learners reduce this uncertainty, including social cues to speaker intent (Baldwin, 1995; Tomasello & Akhtar, 1995), innate linking functions between linguistic categories andmeanings (Booth& Waxman, 2009; Lidz, Waxman, & Freedman, 2003), and statistical mechanisms that aggregate word-object co-occurrences across multiple naming events (Frank, Goodman, & Tenenbaum, 2009; Smith & Yu, 2008; Xu & Tenenbaum, 2007). Here, we present new evidence on the nature of the learning environment at the sensory level, in terms of the moment-to-moment visual information available to the learner about potential referents for a heard name. The findings raise questions about the starting assumption of rampant ambiguity in the early object-name-learning environment and suggest new hypotheses about how visual clutter and competition may limit early word learning.

Our interest in and approach to studying the dynamic visual correlates of object-name learning stem from four considerations. First, the everyday visual world not only offers many potential referents, but also is dynamically complex; objects in the scene move and change in relation to each other and in relation to the sensors as the perceiver also acts and moves. Second, a large literature studying toddler attention shows how this everyday context of a moving body and moving objects is attentionally challenging (e.g., Kanass, Oakes, & Shaddy, 2006). Indeed, sustained attention during play with multiple objects is used to assess individual differences in attentional functioning in typically and atypically developing toddlers (e.g., Lawson & Ruff, 2004). Third, a growing literature on atypical development indicates the comorbidity of sensory-motor, attention, and language delays (e.g., Iverson, 2010). These links are not well understood mechanistically. However, the significant changes in motor behavior that characterize the second year of life (e.g., Adolph & Berger, 2006) bring with them bodily instabilities and, as a result, large head and trunk movements (Berthenthal & von Hofsten, 1998). These movements directly affect the visual input and potentially destabilize attention andmay create special challenges to object name learning. Finally, several recent studies have used head cameras to capture the moment-to-moment visual dynamics as toddlers engage in various activities (Aslin, 2009; Cicchino, Aslin, & Rakison, 2010; Yoshida & Smith, 2008). These studies show that toddlers' head-centered views during active play are not at all like adult views in that they are highly dynamic, with individual objects coming into and going out of view on times scales of seconds and fractions of seconds (Smith, Yu, & Pereira, 2011). …

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