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Memory and Attention Make Smart Word Learning: An Alternative Account of Akhtar, Carpenter, and Tomasello

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Two general types of accounts have been offered to explain the smartness of young children's word learning. One account postulates that children enter the word-learning task with specific knowledge about how words link to categories. The second account puts the source of children's smart word learning in knowledge about the pragmatics of communication and social interactions. The present experiment tested a third idea: that children's seemingly smart word learning derives from general, indeed mundane, cognitive processes. Forty-eight children from 18 to 28 months of age participated in a task designed to test our alternative explanation as applied to Akhtar, Carpenter, and Tomasello's (1996) finding that children use knowledge of the communicative intents of others to interpret a novel noun. Specifically, we suggest that children's attention to the proper referent was guided by the general effects of a contextual shift on memory and attention. The procedure in the present study was identical to that of Akhtar et al. except that we differentiated the target through a nonsocial context shift. Findings similar to that of Akhtar et al. emerged under the present procedures. These results strongly suggest that general attentional and memorial processes, and not knowledge about the communicative intents of others, may guide young children's word learning. These findings provide one demonstration of how smart word learning may emerge from more ordinary (and dumb) cognitive processes.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Indiana University.

Publication date: 01 February 1998

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