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Rapid fast-mapping abilities in 2-year-olds

Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2010.10.013
  • Fast Mapping
  • Language Acquisition
  • Retention
  • Referent Selection
  • Mutual Exclusivity
  • Word Learning


Abstract Learning a new word consists of two primary tasks that have often been conflated into a single process: referent selection, in which a child must determine the correct referent of a novel label, and referent retention, which is the ability to store this newly formed label–object mapping in memory for later use. In addition, children must be capable of performing these tasks rapidly and repeatedly as they are frequently exposed to novel words during the course of natural conversation. Here we used a preferential pointing task to investigate 2-year-olds’ ( N = 72) ability to infer the referent of a novel noun from a single ambiguous exposure and their ability to retain this mapping over time. Children were asked to identify the referent of a novel label on six critical trials distributed throughout the course of a 10-min study involving many familiar and novel objects. On these critical trials, images of a known object and a novel object (e.g., a ball and a nameless artifact constructed in the laboratory) appeared on two computer screens and a voice asked children to “point at the _____ [e.g., glark].” Following label onset, children were allowed only 3 s during which to infer the correct referent, point at it, and potentially store this new word–object mapping. In a final posttest trial, all previously labeled novel objects appeared and children were asked to point to one of them (e.g., “Can you find the glark?”). To succeed, children needed to have initially mapped the novel labels correctly and retained these mappings over the course of the study. Despite the difficult demands of the current task, children successfully identified the target object on the retention trial. We conclude that 2-year-olds are able to fast map novel nouns during a brief single exposure under ambiguous labeling conditions.

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