Bagger or Bär? The influence of individual interests on early word learningDissertation
Datum der mündl. Prüfung:2021-07-19
Betreuer:Prof. Dr. Nivedita Mani
Gutachter:Prof. Dr. Nivedita Mani
Gutachter:Dr. Tanya Behne
EnglischYoung children are remarkable word learners: At the end of the first year of life, typically developing children only produce a handful of words, but their vocabularies grow many times over during the second and third year of life. While the overall pattern of vocabulary growth is relatively stable across children and languages, we observe considerable variability with regard to the individual words known to children. Historically, this variability has been explained in terms of differences in the quantity and quality of input that children receive. Recently renewed interest in the child as an active learner provides a promising backdrop against which this thesis aims to examine variability in the early lexicon: Children strucuture their own learning environment by preferentially attending to and learning from stimuli that interest them. Across three eye-tracking studies, this dissertation investigates the influence of interest on early word learning and vocabulary composition in children aged two to three years. Interest was measured using pupillometry and parental reports. The first study examined whether interest in a novel object and in the semantic category to which the object belongs helps 30-month-old children form new word-object associations. We found that children more robustly recognized word-object associations from high-interest categories. This result points at a key role of the child and their interests in early word learning. Building on these findings, the second study examined the role of interest in novel word retention. Children aged 24 and 38 months were tested on their recognition of newly-learnt word-object associations immediately after exposure and with delays of five minutes and 24 hours. We found evidence for a beneficial role of category interest especially at 24 months, an age group for which previous evidence of word retention in laboratory word learning tasks was limited. In the third study, we tested whether interest guides 30-to-36-month-old children's referent assignment in a referentially ambiguous word learning situation. Here, we found that referent assignment was guided by relative interest in one object over the other, while there was no evidence for a role of category-level interest in resolving referential ambiguity. Taken together, the results of all three studies point at a vital role of interest in early word learning: Referent selection, initial word-object mappings, and longer-term word retention are all positively influenced by interest at the object or category level. This thesis adds to our growing understanding of the importance of interest in early learning and development.
Keywords: language development; language acquisition; word learning; curiosity; interest; eye tracking