Socio-cultural Conventionality and Children’s Selective Learning
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Children’s rapid word learning skills has been the focus of many studies over the last three decades. These studies indicated that children are not only expert word learners, but they are also very selective when learning new words (Sabbagh & Henderson, 2013). Although many studies have shown children’s selectivity when learning words, still little is known about the motives behind children’s selectivity or the mechanisms by which this selectivity works. The major aim of the present dissertation is to advance the current understanding on children’s selective learning. In four studies, we explored whether preschoolers would learn new words or facts from speakers who violated a familiar non-linguistic socio-cultural convention. In Study 1, thirty-six 4-year-olds heard novel words either from a boy puppet who wore a skirt or a boy puppet who wore pants. When then tested for their memory of the words, children who heard the words from the skirt-wearing boy puppet were less likely to produce and remember the word-referent link after a brief delay. Study 2 showed that children learned new words from a skirt-wearing boy puppet equally well when the puppets presented the words slowly; thereby suggesting that violation of a well-established socio-cultural convention affects children’s learning especially under high cognitive load. By replicating the design of Study 1, Study 3 showed that children learned new words from a skirt-wearing boy puppet when the boy puppet gave an excuse for wearing the skirt, suggesting that it was the conventional violation and not simply the anomaly of a skirt-wearing boy that affected children’s learning in Study 1. Study 4 showed that children’s bias against learning from the skirt-wearing boy puppet did not extend to facts about the origins of the toys. Taken together, these results suggested that when acquiring conventional knowledge in learning situations in which their processing capacities are taxed, young children show selective learning from a speaker who follows the socio-cultural conventions of their community.