The impact of recent and long-term experience on access to word meanings: Evidence from large-scale internet-based experiments

Jennifer M. Rodd, Zhenguang G. Cai, Hannah N. Betts, Betsy Hanby, Catherine Hutchinson, Aviva Adler

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Many word forms map onto multiple meanings (e.g., ‘‘ace”). The current experiments explore the extent to which adults reshape the lexical–semantic representations of such words on the basis of experience, to increase the availability of more recently accessed meanings. A naturalistic web-based experiment in which primes were presented within a radio programme (Experiment 1; N = 1800) and a lab-based experiment (Experiment 2)
show that when listeners have encountered one or two disambiguated instances of an ambiguous word, they then retrieve this primed meaning more often (compared with an unprimed control condition). This word-meaning priming lasts up to 40 min after exposure, but decays very rapidly during this interval. Experiments 3 and 4 explore longer term word-meaning priming by measuring the impact of more extended, naturalistic encounters with ambiguous words: recreational rowers (N = 213) retrieved rowing related meanings for words (e.g., ‘‘feather”) more often if they had rowed that day, despite a median delay of 8 hours. The rate of rowing-related interpretations also increased with additional years’ rowing experience. Taken together these experiments show that individuals’ overall meaning preferences reflect experience across a wide range of timescales from minutes to years. In addition, priming was not reduced by a change in speaker identity (Experiment 1), suggesting that the phenomenon occurs at a relatively abstract lexical–semantic level. The impact of experience was reduced for older adults (Experiments 1, 3, 4) suggesting that the lexical–semantic representations of younger listeners may be more malleable to current linguistic experience.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-37
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Early online date6 Nov 2015
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2016


  • Semantic ambiguity
  • Lexical ambiguity
  • Perceptual learning
  • Priming
  • Comprehension
  • Web-based experiment

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