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Kids learn new words as adults, Princeton researchers say


"The effect of the fly": Kids learn new words as adults, Princeton researchers say

Even young children know what typical dogs and fish look like – and apply that knowledge when they hear new words, according to a team at Princeton's baby lab where researchers study how babies learn to see, speak and understand the world.

In a series of experiments with children aged 3 to 5, researchers found that when children learn new nouns, they use what they know about these objects – how typical or unusual they are for their categories (such as fish, dog, etc. bird or flower) – to help them understand what those words mean. It is believed that this type of complex reasoning develops later. The work of researchers appears in the current issue of Children's Language Magazine,

"What we're showing is that meaning matters!" said Adel Goldberg, a professor of psychology at Princeton University and senior author of the paper. "Kids take into account the importance of the objects they see when learning new words."

Researchers have come up with this "fly effect" tactic. If children see a sea fish (or greyhound or unusual tropical flower) and learn a new word to walk with it, they will assume that it refers to this specific type of object, rather than to the broader category of fish (or dogs or flowers).

"This study helps solve one of the great mysteries of language development," said Lauren Embersson, associate professor of psychology and the first author of the article. Many years of research show that when children learn new words, they accept that the word means something relatively common: If they learn a new word for goldfish, children assume that it means "fish."

"But kids can learn these more specific terms," ​​like a whistle and a greyhound, said Emerson, who also co-directs the Princeton Baby Lab. "How do they start doing this? We show that they use the objects themselves for this. If they see an unusual fish and their parent calls it something, they will learn that it refers to that specific fish."

Using a custom-made iPad program, the researchers learned the kids four new words: fep, zak, lat, and galt. Two of these terms were used for typical objects and two for unusual objects. The items came from four categories that children are familiar with: fish, birds, dogs and flowers.

In each trial, a child saw either one or three examples at the top of the screen identified by a new word: "This is a fap" or "These are three feces." By pressing the arrow, the child received 12 more images below: two corresponding to the examples, two sharing the category, and eight unrelated creatures. Then the experimenter asked, "Can you find a peps?"

The researchers were curious as to whether children would decide to "fap" only mean the specific creature in the examples – for example, a slave or a Dalmatian – or if the term was more generally applied to all birds or dogs.

Each child can choose as many shots as they want at their own pace before moving on to the next test by pressing the arrow again. The order of the four categories – fish, birds, dogs and flowers – was randomized among the participants.

The researchers conducted the same experiment with college students; the only differences were that the students were told that this was an experiment designed for young children and were allowed to hold the iPads themselves.

The team found that both children and adults process the new words in the same way. When one of them sees an unusual dog, referred to as a "fap", they are more likely to interpret it closely – meaning this type of dog, not "dogs" in general. These findings contradict the notion that children will always accept that new words should be interpreted as common terms.

In addition, the researchers found that the more "typical" an example looks, the more likely it is for children to accept that it is a generic term unless it is repeated: "Zack" is likely to be interpreted as "fish" if is referred to as single salmon – a fairly typical looking fish – but it is interpreted as "salmon" if it is illustrated by three salmon. But if "zak" has tagged even a single strange-looking fish – like a whistle – children are more likely to think the word means "whistle" than "fish."

"The discovery helps shed light on the mysteries and subtleties of language development," Emerson said.


"The Effect of the Fly: Children and Adults Use Atypical Patterns to Display Narrower Categories While Learning Words," by Lauren L. Embers, Nicole Loncar, Carolyn Mazzay, Isaac Travis and Adel E. Goldberg, published online in Children's Language Magazine on July 16 (DOI: 10.1017 / S0305000919000266). The study was supported by Princeton University.

This story was published on: 2019-07-29. To contact the author, please use the contact information in the article.


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