The ‘blowfish effect’: Children learn new words like adults do

Summary: Both adults and young children assign a narrower interpretation to a word if it is exemplified by an atypical category member. The study sheds new light on how children learn to see, talk and understand the world around them.

Source: Princeton University

Even young children know what typical dogs and fish look like — and they apply that knowledge when they hear new words, reports a team from the Princeton Baby Lab, where researchers study how babies learn to see, talk and understand the world.

In a series of experiments with children 3 to 5 years old, the researchers found that when children are learning new nouns, they use what they know about these objects — how typical or unusual they are for their categories (such as fish, dog, bird or flower) — to help them figure out what these words mean. This type of sophisticated reasoning was thought to only develop later. The researchers’ work appears in the current issue of the Journal of Child Language.

“What we’re showing is that meaning matters!” said Adele Goldberg, professor of psychology at Princeton University and the senior author on the paper.

“Children take the meaning of the objects that they are seeing into account when they learn new words.”

The researchers coined this tactic the “blowfish effect.” If children see a blowfish (or a greyhound or an unusual tropical flower) and learn a new word to go with it, they will assume it refers to that specific type of object and not the broader category of fish (or dogs or flowers).

“This study helps to solve one of the big puzzles in language development,” said Lauren Emberson, assistant professor of psychology and first author on the paper. Many years of studies have shown that when children learn new words, they assume that word means something fairly general: If taught a new word for a goldfish, children assume that it means “fish.”

“But children can learn these more specific terms,” like blowfish and greyhound, said Emberson, who is also one of the directors of the Princeton Baby Lab. “How do they start to do that? We are showing that they use the objects themselves to do this. If they see an unusual fish and their parent calls it something, they will learn that it refers to that specific fish.”

Using a custom-designed iPad program, the researchers taught children four new words: fep, zak, lat and galt. Two of these terms were used for typical objects and two for unusual objects. The objects came from four categories that children are familiar with: fish, birds, dogs and flowers.

In each trial, a child saw either one or three examples at the top of the screen, identified by a new word: “This is a fep,” or “These are three feps.” With the press of an arrow, the child got 12 more images below: two that matched the examples, two that shared the category, and eight unrelated creatures. The experimenter then asked, “Can you find the feps?”

The researchers were curious whether children would decide a “fep” only meant the specific creature in the examples — a robin, for example, or a Dalmatian — or if the term was applied more generally to all birds or dogs.

Each child could choose as many images as she wanted to, at her own pace, before proceeding to the next trial by pressing the arrow again. The order of the four categories — fish, birds, dogs and flowers — was randomized across participants.

The researchers ran the same experiment with college students; the only differences were that the undergraduates were told that this was an experiment intended for young children, and they were allowed to hold the iPads themselves.

This shows pictures of dogs in categories
In word-learning experiments, children saw examples at the top of an iPad screen, identified by a new word like “galt,” and then 12 more images below. After being asked, “Can you find the galts?” they could select as many images as they wanted. The researchers were testing whether 3- to 5-year-olds would decide a “galt” only meant the specific creature in the examples — a poodle, in this case — or if they would apply it more generally to all dogs. They found that the more unusual the example creature, the more likely the children were to apply the term narrowly. The image is credited to the researchers.

The team found that both children and adults processed the new words in the same way. When any of them saw an unusual dog labeled a “fep,” they were more likely to interpret it narrowly — as meaning that type of dog, not “dogs” more generally. These findings run counter to the idea that children will always assume that new words should be interpreted as general terms.

In addition, the researchers found that the more “typical” an example looks, the more likely children are to assume it’s a general term, unless it is repeated: A “zak” was likely to be interpreted as “fish” if it labeled a single salmon — a fairly typical-looking fish — but it was interpreted as “salmon” if illustrated by three salmon. But if “zak” labeled even a single odd-looking fish — like a blowfish — the children were more likely to decide that the word meant “blowfish” than “fish.”

“The finding helps shed light on the mysteries and intricacies of language development,” Emberson said.

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
Princeton University
Media Contacts:
Liz Fuller-Wright – Princeton University
Image Source:
The image is credited to the researchers.

Original Research: Closed access
“The blowfish effect: children and adults use atypical exemplars to infer more narrow categories during word learning”. Lauren L. EMBERSON, Nicole LONCAR, Carolyn MAZZEI, Isaac TREVES and Adele E. GOLDBERG .
Journal of Child Language. doi:10.1017/S0305000919000266

Abstract

The blowfish effect: children and adults use atypical exemplars to infer more narrow categories during word learning

Learners preferentially interpret novel nouns at the basic level (‘dog’) rather than at a more narrow level (‘Labrador’). This ‘basic-level bias’ is mitigated by statistics: children and adults are more likely to interpret a novel noun at a more narrow label if they witness ‘a suspicious coincidence’ – the word applied to three exemplars of the same narrow category. Independent work has found that exemplar typicality influences learners’ inferences and category learning. We bring these lines of work together to investigate whether the content (typicality) of a single exemplar affects the level of interpretation of words and whether an atypicality effect interacts with input statistics. Results demonstrate that both four- to five-year-olds and adults tend to assign a narrower interpretation to a word if it is exemplified by an atypical category member. This atypicality effect is roughly as strong as, and independent of, the suspicious coincidence effect, which is replicated.

Feel free to share this Neuroscience and Learning News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive the latest neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email daily from NeuroscienceNews.com
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. We do not sell email addresses. You can cancel your subscription any time.