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, 47 (3), 241-75

Use of the Mutual Exclusivity Assumption by Young Word Learners


Use of the Mutual Exclusivity Assumption by Young Word Learners

Ellen M Markman et al. Cogn Psychol.


A critical question about early word learning is whether word learning constraints such as mutual exclusivity exist and foster early language acquisition. It is well established that children will map a novel label to a novel rather than a familiar object. Evidence for the role of mutual exclusivity in such indirect word learning has been questioned because: (1) it comes mostly from 2 and 3-year-olds and (2) the findings might be accounted for, not by children avoiding second labels, but by the novel object which creates a lexical gap children are motivated to fill. Three studies addressed these concerns by having only a familiar object visible. Fifteen to seventeen and 18-20-month-olds were selected to straddle the vocabulary spurt. In Study 1, babies saw a familiar object and an opaque bucket as a location to search. Study 2 handed babies the familiar object to play with. Study 3 eliminated an obvious location to search. On the whole, babies at both ages resisted second labels for objects and, with some qualifications, tended to search for a better referent for the novel label. Thus mutual exclusivity is in place before the onset of the naming explosion. The findings demonstrate that lexical constraints enable babies to learn words even under non-optimal conditions--when speakers are not clear and referents are not visible. The results are discussed in relation to an alternative social-pragmatic account.

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