Department of Psychology, Queen's University
Cross-situational word learning is a powerful mechanism for discovering word meaning over time under high uncertainty in any individual moment. Critical for understanding its structure and outcomes is mapping the contributions of memory, attention, and prior knowledge. Contributing to this agenda, the present research examined the role of syntactic knowledge. Adult speakers of English or French (SOV languages) were presented with a cross-situational learning task involving both noun(object) and verb(action) word learning. We varied between conditions the word order - noun-verb, verb-noun, and flexible word order - while keeping the visual environment the same. Learners identified the referents of nouns and verbs above chance in all conditions. The results also showed that learners were equally successful with nouns and verbs in the noun-verb condition as well as the verb-noun condition. However, in the latter reaction times were slower suggesting that it was more difficult. In the flexible word order condition, not only were reaction times slower yet but verbs were learned better than nouns.
Thus, adult learners' syntactic knowledge interacts with the structure of the target language to influence word learning. The results have implications for understanding the relation cross-situation word learning and the grammatical categorization of words.