Grounding word learning in space

Larissa K. Samuelson, Linda B. Smith, Lynn K. Perry, John P. Spencer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Citations (Scopus)


Humans and objects, and thus social interactions about objects, exist within space. Words direct listeners' attention to specific regions of space. Thus, a strong correspondence exists between where one looks, one's bodily orientation, and what one sees. This leads to further correspondence with what one remembers. Here, we present data suggesting that children use associations between space and objects and space and words to link words and objects--space binds labels to their referents. We tested this claim in four experiments, showing that the spatial consistency of where objects are presented affects children's word learning. Next, we demonstrate that a process model that grounds word learning in the known neural dynamics of spatial attention, spatial memory, and associative learning can capture the suite of results reported here. This model also predicts that space is special, a prediction supported in a fifth experiment that shows children do not use color as a cue to bind words and objects. In a final experiment, we ask whether spatial consistency affects word learning in naturalistic word learning contexts. Children of parents who spontaneously keep objects in a consistent spatial location during naming interactions learn words more effectively. Together, the model and data show that space is a powerful tool that can effectively ground word learning in social contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere28095
JournalPLoS One
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 14 Dec 2011


  • Behavior
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Models (Neurological)
  • Parents
  • Space Perception
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Verbal Learning

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