Vocabulary and automatic attention: The relation between novel words and gaze dynamics in noun generalization

Milena Bakopoulou, Megan G. Lorenz, Samuel H. Forbes, Rachel Tremlin, Jessica Bates, Larissa K. Samuelson

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Words direct visual attention in infants, children, and adults, presumably by activating representations of referents that then direct attention to matching stimuli in the visual scene. Novel, unknown, words have also been shown to direct attention, likely via the activation of more general representations of naming events. To examine the critical issue of how novel words and visual attention interact to support word learning we coded frame-by-frame the gaze of 17- to 31-month-old children (n = 66, 38 females) while generalizing novel nouns. We replicate prior findings of more attention to shape when generalizing novel nouns, and a relation to vocabulary development. However, we also find that following a naming event, children who produce fewer nouns take longer to look at the objects they eventually select and make more transitions between objects before making a generalization decision. Children who produce more nouns look to the objects they eventually select more quickly following the naming event and make fewer looking transitions. We discuss these findings in the context of prior proposals regarding children’s few-shot category learning, and a developmental cascade of multiple perceptual, cognitive, and word-learning processes that may operate in cases of both typical development and language delay.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13399
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number6
Early online date18 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023


  • visual attention
  • language delay
  • vocabulary
  • looking-while-listening
  • noun generalization,
  • few-shot category learning
  • noun generalization

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