Kids learn new words in moments of insight

The study was conducted by postdoctoral fellow Tamara Nicol Medina and professors John Trueswell and Lila Gleitman, from the department of psychology, University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences and Jesse Snedeker, professor at Harvard University.

The current theory suggests that children learn their first words through a series of associations — they link words they hear with multiple possible referents in their immediate environment, reports the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Over time, children can track both the words and elements of the environments they correspond to, eventually narrowing down what common element the word must be referring to, according to a Pennsylvania statement.

“This sounds very plausible until you see what the real world is like,” Gleitman said.  “It turns out it’s probably impossible. The theory is appealing as a simple, brute force approach,” Medina said.

Experiments supporting the associative word learning theory generally involve series of pictures of objects, shown in pairs or small groups against a neutral background.
Conversely, the real world has an infinite number of possible referents (words used to represent things and experiences in the real or imagined world) that can change in type or appearance from instance to instance and may not even be present each time the word is spoken.

A small set of psychologists and linguists, including members of the Pennsylvania team, have long argued that the sheer number of statistical comparisons necessary to learn words this way is simply beyond the capabilities of human memory.

They conducted three related experiments, all involving short video segments of parents interacting with their children to come up with these findings.

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