Sarah Eiteljoerge, Maurits Adam, Birgit Elsner, and Nivedita Mani (2019)

Consistency of co-occurring actions influences young children's word learning

Royal Society Open Science, 6:190097.

Communication with young children is often multimodal in nature, involving, for example, language and actions. The simultaneous presentation of information from both domains may boost language learning by highlighting the connection between an object and a word, owing to temporal overlap in the presentation of multimodal input. However, the overlap is not merely temporal but can also co-vary in the extent to which particular actions co-occur with particular words and objects, e.g., caregivers typically produce a hopping action when talking about rabbits and a snapping action for crocodiles. The frequency with which actions and words co-occur in the presence of the referents of these words may also impact young children's word learning. We therefore examined the extent to which consistency in the co-occurrence of particular actions and words impacted children's learning of novel word-object associations.

Children (18 months, 30 months, 36 - 48 months) and adults were presented with two novel objects and heard their novel labels while different actions were performed on these objects, such that the particular actions and word-object pairings always co-occurred (Consistent group) or varied across trials (Inconsistent group). At test, participants saw both objects and heard one of the labels to examine whether participants recognised the target object upon hearing its label.

Growth curve models revealed that 18-month-olds did not learn words for objects in either condition, and 30-month-old and 36- to 48-month-old children learned words for objects only in the Consistent condition, in contrast to adults who learned words for objects independent of the actions presented. Thus, consistency in the multimodal input influenced word learning in early childhood but not in adulthood. In terms of a dynamic systems account of word learning, our study shows how multimodal learning settings interact with the child's perceptual abilities to shape the learning experience.

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