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Psychology 2134A/B Lecture Notes - Syntactic Bootstrapping, Baby Talk

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Marc Joanisse

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LECTURE 2.2 Lexical Development
First words begin to appear at 12 months. Then there is a naming explosion and by the age of 5
children know around 13,000 words.
Fast Mapping is the term used to describe the phenomena whereby young children can learn a
word just after a few observations.
Baby talk or motherese is characterized by a high pitched intonation and exaggerated prosodic
contours. It also typically has simpler grammar.
Research using the preferential looking procedure has shown that babies prefer listening to
motherese over standard speech.
One of the problems that babies face is the segmentation problem. This refers to the issue of
how we can identify the spaces in between, and thus segment, the words in a sentence.
Saffran conducted a study where she made up non-words that were English sounding in the
sense that they adhered to our laws of syllabic sequences and prosody. She played these words
on a tape recorder to babies in a sentence like fashion.
She did the same thing with another group of babies except with non-words that violated what
we would expect of proper English words.
The babies actually preferred listening to the non-words that sounded like English words and
could segment them.
This study and others suggests that babies learn through statistical regularities. This means that
certain syllables occur more often together than others do(frequent vs infrequent syllables).
The Gavagi Problem. How do you know if a word refers to a whole object, any of its features or
something completely unrelated.... see lecture slides for better details.
The Reference Problem; how is it that we learn words when there are so many possible
The Gavagi Problem and the Reference Problem are very similar and often used interchangeably.
Common errors in speech that children make are over-generalizations (i.e. refer to all adults
males are called “daddy”) and under-extensions (i.e. think only the family cat is called “cat”).
Children will also make whole object assumption errors where they assume that a word
describing some feature of an object refers to the entire thing.
Taxonomic constraint is when children assign a word to all things in a certain category. For
example they would refer to all farm animals as “cows.”
The mutual exclusivity bias is a roadblock in language development when children believe that
each object only has one title. For example they cannot understand that the a cat can be a “cat”,
a “pet” and an “animal” all at once.
Kids will learn the basic level meanings before moving to the larger class of things. So for
example they will learn chair before furniture, shirt before clothes, etc.
Syntactic bootstrapping is when children use their knowledge of syntax to learn the meaning of
words. i.e. describing a picture as “Elmo is blorping.” They know who Elmo is, they know that “is
___ing” will typically mean some action. So they can use this information to learn what blorping
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