Sometimes it is better to know less: How known words influence referent selection and retention in 18 to 24-month-old children

Sarah C. Kucker, Bob McMurray, Larissa K. Samuelson

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11 Citations (Scopus)
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Young children are surprisingly good word learners. Despite their relative lack of world knowledge and limited vocabularies, they consistently map novel words to novel referents and, at later ages, show retention of these new word–referent pairs. Prior work has implicated the use of mutual exclusivity constraints and novelty biases, which require that children use knowledge of well-known words to disambiguate uncertain naming situations. The current study, however, presents evidence that weaker vocabulary knowledge during the initial exposure to a new word may be better for retention of new mappings. Children aged 18–24 months selected referents for novel words in the context of foil stimuli that varied in their lexical strength and novelty: well-known items (e.g., shoe), just-learned weakly known items (e.g., wif), and completely novel items. Referent selection performance was significantly reduced on trials with weakly known foil items. Surprisingly, however, children subsequently showed above-chance retention for novel words mapped in the context of weakly known competitors compared with those mapped with strongly known competitors or with completely novel competitors. We discuss implications for our understanding of word learning constraints and how children use known words and novelty during word learning.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104705
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date18 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020


  • Word Learning
  • Fast Mapping
  • Lexicon
  • novelty
  • Toddlers

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