How do children understand the meaning of words? The new computer model has answers


Scientists are continually discovering more about how we learn language from an early age, and a new study specifically examines how very young children integrate different sources of information to learn new words.

These sources can be anything from whether they’ve seen an object before (which indicates whether or not it has a name they’ve heard before) to what they might discuss with someone when a new one. word is introduced.

To better understand how these sources are combined, the researchers developed a cognitive model, proposing a social inference approach where children use all the information available in front of them to infer the identity of a given object.

“You can think of this model as a small computer program”, says developmental psychologist Michael Henry Tessler from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “We capture children’s sensitivity to different information, which we measure in separate experiments, and then the program simulates what should happen if these sources of information are rationally combined.”

“The model spits out predictions about what should happen in new hypothetical situations in which these sources of information are all available.”

The theoretical system developed by the researchers was informed by Previous search in philosophy, developmental psychology and linguistics. Data was also collected from tests carried out on 148 children aged 2 to 5 years to assess their sensitivity to different sources of information. The data was then inserted into the model.

After collating predictions from their model, the researchers then conducted real-world experiments with a total of 220 children to see how they might infer the meaning of words such as duck, apple, and pawn, when the relevant objects were placed in front of them. on a tablet screen.

Children were given a variety of clues about the relationships between words and objects, including a voiceover from a presenter and a mix of labels they would and might not have already been familiar with. In this way, the researchers were able to test three sources: prior knowledge, presenter cues, and the context of a conversation.

Part of the word test app presented to kids. (Frank et al, Nature Human Behavior 2021)

The model’s approach corresponded very closely to the results of the final experiments, suggesting that these three sources of information are used by children in predictable and measurable ways as they develop their vocabulary.

“The virtue of computer modeling is that you can articulate a range of alternative hypotheses – alternative models – with different internal wiring to test whether other theories would make as good or better predictions,” said Tessler.

The results presented in this study suggest that various alternative hypotheses can be ruled out: that certain sources of information are ignored, for example, or that the way sources are processed changes as children grow older.

What the research gives us is a mathematical perspective to understand how language learning occurs in children, but it is still early for this particular approach; more studies will be needed with larger groups of children to help develop the idea.

How we go from knowing a handful of words to several thousand in just a few years is fascinating – and better understanding how it works can shed light on everything from teaching to therapy.

“In the real world, children learn words in complex social contexts in which more than one type of information is available”, says developmental psychologist Manuel Bohn, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

“They must use their knowledge of words while interacting with a speaker. Learning words always requires the integration of several different sources of information.”

The research was published in Nature Human Behavior.

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