Word learning emerges from the interaction of online referent selection and slow associative learning

Bob McMurray, Jessica S Horst, Larissa K Samuelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

277 Citations (Scopus)


Classic approaches to word learning emphasize referential ambiguity: In naming situations, a novel word could refer to many possible objects, properties, actions, and so forth. To solve this, researchers have posited constraints, and inference strategies, but assume that determining the referent of a novel word is isomorphic to learning. We present an alternative in which referent selection is an online process and independent of long-term learning. We illustrate this theoretical approach with a dynamic associative model in which referent selection emerges from real-time competition between referents and learning is associative (Hebbian). This model accounts for a range of findings including the differences in expressive and receptive vocabulary, cross-situational learning under high degrees of ambiguity, accelerating (vocabulary explosion) and decelerating (power law) learning, fast mapping by mutual exclusivity (and differences in bilinguals), improvements in familiar word recognition with development, and correlations between speed of processing and learning. Together it suggests that (a) association learning buttressed by dynamic competition can account for much of the literature; (b) familiar word recognition is subserved by the same processes that identify the referents of novel words (fast mapping); (c) online competition may allow the children to leverage information available in the task to augment performance despite slow learning; (d) in complex systems, associative learning is highly multifaceted; and (e) learning and referent selection, though logically distinct, can be subtly related. It suggests more sophisticated ways of describing the interaction between situation- and developmental-time processes and points to the need for considering such interactions as a primary determinant of development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)831-877
Number of pages47
JournalPsychological Review
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2012


  • Association Learning
  • Child
  • Preschool Child
  • Computer Simulation
  • Feedback
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Inhibition
  • Knowledge
  • Language Development
  • Models
  • Psychological Theory
  • Reaction Time
  • Recognition
  • Semantics
  • Time Factors
  • Uncertainty
  • Verbal Behavior
  • Verbal Learning
  • Vocabulary

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