Lena Ackermann, Robert Hepach, and Nivedita Mani (2020)

Children learn words easier when they are interested in the category to which the word belongs

Developmental Science, 23(3):e12915.

The overall pattern of vocabulary development is relatively similar across children learning different languages. However, there are considerable differences in the words known to individual children. Historically, this variability has been explained in terms of differences in the input. Here, we examine the alternate possibility that children’s individual interest in specific natural categories shapes the words they are likely to learn – a child who is more interested in animals will learn a new animal name easier relative to a new vehicle name. Two-year-old German-learning children (N=39) were exposed to four novel word-object associations for objects from four different categories. Prior to the word learning task, we measured their interest in the categories that the objects belonged to. Our measure was pupillary change following exposure to familiar objects from these four categories, with increased pupillary change interpreted as increased interest in that category. Children showed more robust learning of word-object associations from categories they were more interested in relative to categories they were less interested in. We further found that interest in the novel objects themselves influenced learning, with distinct influences of both category interest and object interest on learning. These results suggest that children’s interest in different natural categories shapes their word learning. This provides evidence for the strikingly intuitive possibility that a child who is more interested in animals will learn novel animal names easier than a child who is more interested in vehicles.