The role of partial knowledge in statistical word learning

Daniel Yurovsky, Damian C. Fricker, Chen Yu, Linda B. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Citations (Scopus)


A critical question about the nature of human learning is whether it is an all-or-none or a gradual, accumulative process. Associative and statistical theories of word learning rely critically on the later assumption: that the process of learning a word’s meaning unfolds over time. That is, learning the correct referent for a word involves the accumulation of partial knowledge across multiple instances. Some theories also make an even stronger claim: Partial knowledge of one word–object mapping can speed up the acquisition of other word–object mappings. We present three experiments that test and verify these claims by exposing learners to two consecutive blocks of cross-situational learning, in which half of the words and objects in the second block were those that participants failed to learn in Block 1. In line with an accumulative account, Re-exposure to these mis-mapped items accelerated the acquisition of both previously experienced mappings and wholly new word–object mappings. But how does partial knowledge of some words speed the acquisition of others? We consider two hypotheses. First, partial knowledge of a word could reduce the amount of information required for it to reach threshold, and the supra-threshold mapping could subsequently aid in the acquisition of new mappings. Alternatively, partial knowledge of a word’s meaning could be useful for disambiguating the meanings of other words even before the threshold of learning is reached. We construct and compare computational models embodying each of these hypotheses and show that the latter provides a better explanation of the empirical data.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin & Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2014
Externally publishedYes

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