Cross-Situational Learning: An Experimental Study of Word-Learning Mechanisms

Cognitive Science 35 (3):480-498 (2011)
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Cross-situational learning is a mechanism for learning the meaning of words across multiple exposures, despite exposure-by-exposure uncertainty as to the word's true meaning. We present experimental evidence showing that humans learn words effectively using cross-situational learning, even at high levels of referential uncertainty. Both overall success rates and the time taken to learn words are affected by the degree of referential uncertainty, with greater referential uncertainty leading to less reliable, slower learning. Words are also learned less successfully and more slowly if they are presented interleaved with occurrences of other words, although this effect is relatively weak. We present additional analyses of participants’ trial-by-trial behavior showing that participants make use of various cross-situational learning strategies, depending on the difficulty of the word-learning task. When referential uncertainty is low, participants generally apply a rigorous eliminative approach to cross-situational learning. When referential uncertainty is high, or exposures to different words are interleaved, participants apply a frequentist approximation to this eliminative approach. We further suggest that these two ways of exploiting cross-situational information reside on a continuum of learning strategies, underpinned by a single simple associative learning mechanism



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Andrew F. Smith
Drexel University