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

Word-object and action-object association learning across early development

PLOS One, 14(8):e0220317.

Successful communication often involves comprehension of both spoken language and observed actions with and without objects. Even very young infants can learn associations between actions and objects as well as between words and objects. However, in daily life, children are usually confronted with both kinds of input simultaneously. Choosing the critical information to attend to in such situations might help children structure the input, and thereby, allow for successful learning.

In the current study, we therefore, investigated the developmental time course of children’s and adults’ word and action learning when given the opportunity to learn both word-object and action-object associations for the same object. All participants went through a learning phase and a test phase. In the learning phase, they were presented with two novel objects which were associated with a distinct novel name (e.g., ”Look, a Tanu”) and a distinct novel action (e.g., moving up and down while tilting sideways). In the test phase, participants were presented with both objects on screen in a baseline phase, then either heard one of the two labels or saw one of the two actions in a prime phase, and then saw the two objects again on screen in a recognition phase. Throughout the trial, participants’ target looking was recorded to investigate whether participants looked at the target object upon hearing its label or seeing its action, and thus, would show learning of the word-object and action-object associations. Growth curve analyses revealed that 12-month-olds showed modest learning of action-object associations, 36-month-olds learned word-object associations, and adults learned word-object and action-object associations.

These results highlight how children attend to the different information types from the two modalities through which communication is addressed to them. Over time, with increased exposure to systematic word-object mappings, children attend less to action-object mappings, with the latter potentially being mediated by word-object learning even in adulthood. Thus, choosing between different kinds of input that may be more relevant in their rich environment encompassing different modalities might help learning at different points in development.

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