Twelve-month-olds disambiguate new words using mutual-exclusivity inferences

Updated: May 10

Representing objects in terms of their kinds enables inferences based on the long-term knowledge made available through kind concepts. For example, children readily use lexical knowledge linked to familiar kind concepts to disambiguate new words (e.g., “find the toma”): they exclude members of familiar kinds falling under familiar kind labels (e.g., a ball) as potential referents and link new labels to available unfamiliar objects (e.g., a funnel), a phenomenon dubbed as ‘mutual exclusivity’. Younger infants' failure in mutual exclusivity tasks has been commonly interpreted as a limitation of early word-learning or inferential abilities. Here, we investigated an alternative explanation, according to which infants do not spontaneously represent familiar objects under kind concepts, hence lacking access to the information necessary for rejecting them as referents of novel labels. Building on findings about conceptual development and communication, we hypothesized that nonverbal communication could prompt infants to set up kind-based representations which, in turn, would promote mutual exclusivity inferences. This hypothesis was tested in a looking-while-listening task involving novel word disambiguation. Twelve-month-olds saw pairs of objects, one familiar and one unfamiliar, and heard familiar kind labels or novel words. Across two experiments providing a cross-lab replication in two different languages, infants successfully disambiguated novel words when the familiar object had been pointed at before labeling, but not when it had been highlighted in a non-communicative manner (Experiment 1) or not highlighted at all (Experiment 2). Nonverbal communication induced infants to recruit kind-based representations of familiar objects that they failed to recruit in its absence and that, once activated, supported mutual-exclusivity inferences. Developmental changes in children's appreciation of communicative contexts may modulate the expression of early inferential and word learning competences.

Pomiechowska, B., Bródy, G., Csibra, G., & Gliga, T. (2021). Twelve-month-olds disambiguate new words using mutual-exclusivity inferences. Cognition, 104691.