Lexical competition and the acquisition of novel words

Cognition. 2003 Sep;89(2):105-32. doi: 10.1016/s0010-0277(03)00070-2.


Three experiments examined the involvement of newly learnt words in lexical competition. Adult participants were familiarized with novel nonsense sequences that overlapped strongly with existing words (e.g. cathedruke, derived from cathedral) through repeated presentation in a phoneme-monitoring task. Experiment 1 looked at the immediate effects of exposure to these sequences, with participants showing familiarity with the form of the novel sequences in a two-alternative forced choice task. The effect of this exposure on lexical competition was examined by presenting the existing words (e.g. cathedral) in a lexical decision task. The immediate effect of the exposure was facilitatory, suggesting that the novel words had activated the representation of the closest real word rather than developing their own lexical representations. In Experiment 2, inhibitory lexical competition effects emerged over the course of 5 days for offset-diverging (e.g. cathedruke-cathedral) but not onset-diverging (e.g. yothedral-cathedral) novel words. Experiment 3 disentangled the roles of time and level-of-exposure in the lexicalization process and assessed the generality of the observed lexical inhibition using pause detection. A single, concentrated exposure session was used, which resulted in good recognition performance soon after. Lexicalization effects were absent immediately after exposure but emerged 1 week later, despite no intervening exposure to the novel items. These results suggest that integrating a novel word into the mental lexicon can be an extended process: phonological information is learnt swiftly, but full integration with existing items develops at a slower rate.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Middle Aged
  • Reaction Time
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Semantics
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Verbal Learning*