Attentional Orientation and Vocabulary Size

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Snelling, Katherine
Disambiguation , Word learning , Gaze shifting , Vocabulary
Quickly looking to a plausible referent of a word is both an indicator of effective lexical processing and an opportunity to learn new words. Beginning in infancy, faster attentional orientation during recognition and disambiguation is associated with superior vocabulary ability (Bion et al., 2013; Fernald et al., 2006). Yet, existing research on attentional orientation during word learning is limited. The present study examined whether the speed of attentional orientation during novel word learning is associated with word learning and vocabulary ability in adults. The speed of attentional orientation likely depends on strengthening consistent associations and pruning spurious ones. In this study, exposure to word-object pairs in a familiarization phase affected individuals’ expectations. In each trial of the subsequent Cross-Situational Word Learning phase, individuals saw two referents and heard two words. The first word remained consistent from the familiarization phase to the learning phase. The second word was inconsistent from the familiarization to the learning phase. Adults used relative certainty to disambiguate the referents of inconsistent words in the first block of the learning phase, despite having seen these words co-occur with different objects earlier. Adults who oriented more quickly following consistent and inconsistent words learned those words better. Faster attentional orientation following the inconsistent word was associated with more developed productive and receptive vocabulary abilities. These findings suggest that attentional orientation, measured in a context that does not draw on previous experiences with the words and objects, is still associated with vocabulary and word learning in adulthood. Additionally, the relationships between attentional orientation, word learning, and vocabulary ability are not specific to infancy. Adults who attend to the most likely referent of a novel word faster have better vocabulary abilities.
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