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Breaking the Word Learning Barrier: How children learn their first words. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek Roberta Golinkoff Beth Hennon Mandy Maguire. Outline. I. The Word Learning Problem II. Three Theories of Lexical Acquisition III. The Emergentist Coalition Model IV. Evidence for the Theory

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Breaking the Word Learning Barrier:How children learn their first words

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

Roberta Golinkoff

Beth Hennon

Mandy Maguire


  • I. The Word Learning Problem

  • II. Three Theories of Lexical Acquisition

  • III. The Emergentist Coalition Model

  • IV. Evidence for the Theory

  • V. Conclusions

Part I

The Word Learning Problem

Introduction to Word Learning

At twelve months, David utters his first word. In just seven or eight months, he will be learning up to nine new words a day and will have over 50 words in his productive vocabulary.

Two questions

  • 1. How do infants break the word barrier at ~ 12 months?

  • 2. What accounts for the changing character of word learning that appears at ~ 19 months?

Breaking the Word Barrier

• Segment words from the constant flow of speech (Jusczyk, Cutler, & others).

• Find coherent objects, actions, and events in their environment (Spelke, Baillargeon, & others).

• Map the words to those objects and events in a symbolic way (Markman, Clark, Waxman, Tomesello, & others).

Quinean Conundrum

  • “Gavagai!”

Part II.

Three theories of Word Learning

Constraints/Principles Views

  • Assumption: Takes Quine seriously. Child has a major induction problem. Child as biased word learner.

  • Data: Children entertain limited hypothesis for a word's meaning.

    • Markman's Mutual Exclusivity

    • Clark's Conventionality

    • Golinkoff, Mervis, & Hirsh-Pasek’s N3C

Constraints/Principles Views

  • “If we grant learners some domain-specific principles, we provide them with a way to define the range of relevant inputs, the ones that support learning about that domain. Because principles embody constraints on the kinds of input that can be processed as data that are relevant to that domain, they therefore can direct attention to those aspects of the environment that need to be selected and attended to (p. 130)”

  • Gelman & Greeno (1989)

First Tier


Words map to objects, actions, and events

Object Scope

Words map to whole objects


Words map to more than one exemplar

Diagram of lexical principles framework

Associative Views

  • Assumption:Quine is irrelevant. Word learning develops from domain general associative learning mechanisms -- dumb attentional mechanisms.

  • Data: Children will make any link if it is salient.

    • Salient Objects

    • Salient Part.

    • Salient Actions

Associative Views

  • “…children do not acquire their first words rapidly rather fast word learning only occurs only after children have already learned some initial words [fast word learning] might be a learned generalization from language input.”

  • Smith (1996)


  • Assumption: Inverse of Quine. Social world guides child to word-world mapping. Child is Apprentice to Expert Word User.

  • Data: Children recognize social cues and use them in the service of word learning.

    • Baldwin's telephone example

    • Tomasello's joint attention: adults constrain conversation.


“The typical way children acquire almost completely opposite of the Quinean paradigm. Children do not try and guess what it is that the adult intends to refer to; is the adult who guesses what the child is focused on and then supplies the appropriate word (pp. 240-241)”

Nelson (1988)

Problems with the theories

• Snapshots

• Reductionism

• Single cues not multiple cues

We need to avoid snapshots and find a system which embraces change.

The Battle

Social Pragmatic




Mutually exclusive or compatible?

Part I I I

An Attempt at Integration

Emergentist Coalition Model

We propose a hybrid-developmental model in which children start with basic word learning principles but the character of these principles changes over time. For example, children might start with a principle of reference -- that a word refers. At first, a word is ASSOCIATED with the most interesting object. Later, word reference is SOCIALLY informed, mapping onto the object the speaker has in mind.

Emergentist Model

We propose a model of an active child which has the following properties:

  • Multiple Cues - Attentional, Social, Linguistic.

  • Differential Weighting over time

  • Emergent properties - Immature to Mature

Multiple Cues



Temporal Contiguity




Eye Gaze


Social Context

Differential Weighting: Time 1



Temporal Contiguity




Eye Gaze


Social Context

Differential Weighting: Time 2



Temporal Contiguity




Eye Gaze


Social Context

Differential Weighting: Time 3



Temporal Contiguity




Eye Gaze


Social Context

Emergent: Immature to Mature

Only from the combined action of multiple cues is word learning even possible.

• Domain-general to specific

• Own view to other’s view

• Indexical (signal) to symbolic

Principles are thus the products, not the engines of development.

Validating the Emergentist Model

• Do children use multiple, overlapping cues in word learning?

• Does the weighting change over time?

• In this manner, are word learning principles emergent products?

Part IV: Evidence for the Emergentist Coalition Model

The Principles of Reference and Extendibility

as cases in point.

The Case of Reference

The Principle of Reference

Considered by many to be the most basic of word learning principles, often considered to be a “conceptual primitive.” States that words symbolically “refer” to objects, actions, and events.

A Continuum of Reference

  • Immature principle of reference:

  • Domain-general associative behavior.

  • “Goes-with” relationship (telephone-->ring)

  • Perceptual Weighting: What kid has in mind.

  • Mature principle of reference:

  • Domain-specific rule-like behavior.

  • “Stands-for relationship” -- Non-iconic

  • (Word telephone used without phone present.)

  • Social Weighting: What adult has in mind.

Practical Consequences of a Continuum of Reference

Immature Principle of Reference

Attaches label to object, action, or event that is the most interesting in the environment -- perceptual cues dominate mapping. Often wrong!

Mature Principle of Reference

Social cues dominate mapping. Child becomes apprentice to adult for quick and reliable learning.


If present children with interesting and boring objects AND label the boring object (e.g.. Look at it, point to it, handle it)…

Children with an immature principle:

Assume the label maps to the interesting object regardless of what the adult does.

Children with an mature principle:

Assume the label maps to the boring object that the speaker has in mind.


Need for a method.

  • A method that would allow for controlled word learning experiments in both 12 month old infants who are just learning their first words and in 24-month old word learning sophisticates.

  • A method that makes minimal demands on babies.

  • A tightly controlled procedure where word learning cues could be systematically introduced.

The Interactive IPLP





& Child

Display Board

“Where’s the Ball.”

Display Board

“Do you see the ball? Look at the Ball.”


Children will allocate more attention to the object that “matches” the requested object.

Interactive IPLP: Design

Familiar Procedure

Novel Trial Procedure (Part 1)

Novel Trial Procedure (Part 2)



Younger children would map words (associate words) to the most interesting object even in the conflict condition while older children will use social cues to map words to objects and will label the boring object if that is the object labeled by the experimenter.

Independent & Dependent Variables

• Independent:

- Age

- Toy labeled

- Side of match


- visual fixation

99 subjects; 33 at each of three ages - 12, 19, 24 mo.


Validation: Familiar Trials within paradigm assess whether children can do the task.

Test of model: Novel Trials in which children are trained to map a label onto either an interesting or a boring unfamiliar toy.

Study 1: Validation & Test of Model

Familiar Results

Where infants able to do the task?


Familiar Results: Mean Looking to Targeted Object

Mean Looking time (sec)

Salience Results

Was the interesting toy and boring toy really interesting and boring?


Salience Results

Training Results

Were the children able to follow

eye gaze in the labeling phase?

  • YES: 19 and 24-mo-old infants did.

  • NO: 12-mo-old infants did not.

Training Results: Mean Difference in looking time to interesting object

Novel Trial Results

  • Did the children learn the label?

  • YES: For the 19- and 24- mo-old infants

  • UNCLEAR: For the 12 mo-old infants

Novel Trial Results: Difference in Looking times to Interesting Object



Mean Diff Looking time (sec)

Taking Stock: Discussion and Interpretation

What we know:

* We can develop methods that allow us to peer

at cues used in the word learning process

* Principle of Reference appears to be emergent:

There is a changing emphasis on social cues.

What we don't know:

* Whether 12 month olds are capable of learning a

label in our task at all.

Study 2: Are the 12 month olds learning anything?

The current results leave us with two potential interpretations:

The infants are clueless and cannot label at all


The infants are learning a label BUT are

labeling the interesting object -- the

perceptually salient choice in accordance with our hypothesis.

Changing the test trial design

  • Novel trial: Where's the modi?

  • Novel trial: Where's the modi?

  • New Novel Word: Where's the glorp?

  • Novel trial: Where's the modi?


Original Novel

New Novel

Original Novel



Mean Difference in Looking Time


(* indicates p<.05)





Study 2: Results (n=32)

Study 2: What we learned

* The label is making a difference, but only in the coincidental condition.

* 12-month olds are lured by perceptual salience, but they did not attach the label to the interesting object in the conflict condition. Thus, contrary to predictions, they are conservative learners who need consistent cues, both social and perceptual, in order to attach labels to objects.

So where’s Fido?

Is there ever a time when children rely solely on perceptual cues to make world-to-word mappings?

Study 3: Learning from 10-month olds

  • 10-month-olds are just beginning to understand words

  • They know few or none of the familiar words used with the older children, so we could not validate the procedure.

  • Yet, they are learning words, SO

  • We ran 26, 10-month olds on Study 3

And this is what we found…..

Results of Study 3 with 10-month olds

No differences across conflict and coincidental conditions!

Interesting Boring

Salience2.80 s. 2.25 s.*

Training 4.04 s. 2.21 s.***

Novels 2.80 s. 1.66 s.***

Glorp 2.06 s. 1.53 s. (ns)

Recovery 2.47 s. 1.34 s. **

10-month-old results

Conclusions from Study 3

Fido lives!

At the very beginning of word learning, children label the most interesting object regardless of what the adult is doing.

What do 18-month olds have the 10-month olds lack?

  • The ability to use another’s social intent to inform the mapping between word and world ( a finding that is pervasive in the literature)

  • The consequent ability to benefit from the social/cognitive foundation through which we inherit our culture (Tomasello, 2000)

Study 4: A final natural experiment on reference: The case of autistic children

  • Children seem to move from the use of perceptual cues to social cues in word learning.

  • This shift emerges at around the same time the naming explosion is evident in production

  • Could it be that children who cannot recruit social cues fall behind in vocabulary learning because they learn more like 10-month-old associative learners than like 18-month-old social learners?

The studyHennon, 2002

  • 17 autistic children with a DSM diagnosis of autism

  • 26 age-matched matched control children

  • Same study that was conducted with the 10 through 24-month-old children, but with touching and pointing of objects

Labeled interesting object

Labeled boring object

The principle of reference:What have we learned?

  • Consistent with the predictions of the Emergentist Coalition Model, infants begin as associationists, mapping words to the most salient objects in the environment.

  • By just 12 months of age, they are already attending to multiple cues to serve word-to-world mappings.

  • The potency of cues changes over time such that the 12-month-old associationist, becomes the 18-month-old social pragmatist.

  • The principle of reference is thus emergent across developmental time as infants learn to use social cues in the service of word learning.

  • For some children, the shift might not take place, seriously retarding their ability to learn new words.

A summary of 12 of our studies on the principle of reference can be found in...

Our recent SRCD monograph:

Hollich, G., Hirsh-Pasek,K., & Golinkoff, R.M. (2000) Breaking the language barrier: An emergentist coalition model for the origins of word learning.

The Case of Extendibility

We know from the principle of reference that children can label a single object, but do they know that most words refer to categories of objects, rather than to single objects, actions and events?

The Emergentist View

  • Immature Principle of Extendibility:

    Child operates with proper noun hypothesis; infant

    labels unique object and then quickly moves to

    extension based on perceptual similarity -- using child’s

    point of view.

  • Mature Principle of Extendibility:

    Child uses speaker’s point of view to extend word to

    category member even if no perceptual similarity.

Extendibility: Three questions

  • Will children label just the original object or be willing to extend the label to an object of similar appearance?

  • Can infants extend label to another exemplar of similar appearance even if original object is not present?

  • Will children use social cues to extend a novel label even in the absence of perceptual similarity?

Two types of experiments to test questions:

  • Perception Extension Experiments

  • Social Extension Experiments

Prediction: Time 1



Temporal Contiguity




Eye Gaze


Social Context

Differential Weighting: Time 2



Temporal Contiguity




Eye Gaze


Social Context

Study 1: Extendability: Perception Experiments

Trial Procedure(Part 2)

167 children participated; at ages

10 months

12 months

14 months

19 months

24 months


Data reported from 95 children who learned the label for the original exemplar (ranging from 60% of the 10- and 12-month-olds to 75% of the 24-month-olds).

Preliminary Results


Do children begin with a proper noun hypothesis?

10-month olds prefer to look at the original exemplar when paired with an exemplar that is identical with the exception of color (p < .05)

12-month-olds show a trend towards the proper noun hypothesis (p = .06)

No evidence for proper noun hypothesis at other ages

Results on proper noun


At 19- and 24-months


At 10-, 12- and 14- months

These children CAN extend, but extension is fragile and is influenced by context.

Do children extend a label to perceptually similar objects?

If they are presented with this display:

first then

They CAN extend

If they are presented with this display:

first then

They CAN’T extend

What are the younger infants doing?

Younger children will default to the proper noun hypothesis if given any opportunity to use it.

Older more sophisticated word learners have learned that the default is the opposite: Words label categories.


As in the acquisition of grammar, it is easier to go from a narrow hypothesis to a broad one than the reverse.

Baby word learners are brilliant!

As they hear labels used with perceptually similar objects, they learn -- on very few exposures -- to extend and to form categories (Hollich, 1999, Smith 2000)

Yet, all category members do not share perceptual features (e.g., bean bag chairs and dining room chairs are both chairs) Can they extend labels to these categories?

How do children learn to extend?

Study 2a:Extendibilty:

The Social Extension Experiments





The hypotheses

Consistent with the theory, we hypothesized that children with an immature principle of extension, who rely on perceptual information will not accept the category label for a perceptually dissimilar object.

Children with a mature principle of extension will use both perceptual and social cues for category extension.

Study 2a: Extendability : The Social Extension

Exploration and labeling

“Eve, it’s a modi “

“Wow, a modi.”

“Oh, a modi”

“Eve, Look , another modi”

“And look at this!”

Procedure (cont.)

Testing (6sec)

“Eve, where’s the modi?”

“Do you see the modi?”

“Show me the modi.”


  • 95 children participated at ages:

  • 12 months

  • 18 months

  • 24 months


  • The 18- and 24-month-olds included the perceptually dissimilar random object in the category or at least accepted our name for the random object. They readily accept the label that the speaker offered.

  • The 12-month-olds did not accept the label.


  • Do the 12-month olds need perceptual cues with social cues to support extension?


  • Do they have other processing problems, like memory problems, that caused them to fail in this task?

Study 2b: Extension with perceptual and social support


  • Here 12-, 18- and 24-month-old children succeed without difficulty.

  • 12-month-olds seem to need perceptual support to extend a label.

  • 18- and 24-month-olds will extend a category based on social and linguistic cues alone.

Interpreting studies on the principle of extendibility

  • Consistent with the predictions:

  • 10-month-olds have a proper noun bias

  • By 12 and 14 months they start to extend labels to similar objects, but that extension is fragile.

  • By 18 months of age, children naturally extend to perceptually similar objects and will even “trust” a social mentor -- accepting a label for a category object even without perceptual support.

Infants learning their first words are already operating with immature word learning principles that help get language learning off the ground.

These principles are informed by multiple inputs -- attentional, social, and linguistic.

These principles are both conservative and fragile.

The nature of these principles changes over time with attentional cues dominating early and social and linguistic cues becoming increasingly important.

Recapping the Story Line

Part V: Conclusions

  • Evaluating the model

  • Taking change seriously

  • Theoretical implications

Evaluating the model

• Is there evidence that children use multiple cues?

  • Do the weightings of cues shift over time?

  • Does the child move from an immature to a mature principle?

The Immature Principles at 12 months?

  • Children use a coalition of social, perceptual and linguistic cues to redundantly map words onto referents.

  • Very conservative word learners who attach words to the things that are of the most interest to them.

  • They attach words to a single object, action or event.

  • Word-to-world mapping conducted from child’s point of view rather than the speaker’s point of view.

  • Principles of reference and extendibility are fragile.

  • Word learning is slow.

Conservative child, redundancy needed to map









Mature Principles at 24 months

  • Infants now rely primarily on social cues like eye gaze, pointing, and handling to determine the referent for a word.

  • They map a word onto what the speaker has in mind --greatly enhancing the accuracy of word learning.

  • Children qua statisticians develop biases for social and linguistic cues that are reliable and accurate predictors of how words map to objects, actions and events.

  • Word learning is fast.

Older children: Rely on Social and Linguistic cues. But any will work.









The power of the new method in evaluating the model

Only a method that allows us to look at competing cues over time will reveal the true complexity of the system.

The emergentist coalition model embraces many of the characteristics of the associationistic, social pragmatic, and constraints/principles views and demonstrates how seemingly opposing perspectives can be united in a word learning theory that looks at developmental change over time.

Thus far we see THAT change occurs. We must now begin to evaluate what motivates the change.

Taking Change Seriously

Theoretical Implications

The emergentist coalition model is a proxy for developmental theory--writ large:

NOT searching for parsimony by identifying

a “smoking gun.”

The new wave: the “radical middle”

The EMC suggests that:

We need not be constrained by myopic theories of complex phenomena

Social Pragmatics


Constraints/ Principles

Across developmental psychology we must begin to take an integrative look at the child from different theoretical perspectives...

Even this won’t be enough, however, if we don’t look for change over time and for ways to connect the snapshots that we produce...

For only when we look at how multiple inputs interact across time will developmentalists be able to understand complex behaviors and see a whole baby

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