Skip to main content Accessibility help

Finding meaning in a noisy world: exploring the effects of referential ambiguity and competition on 2·5-year-olds’ cross-situational word learning*

  • JOHN P. BUNCE (a1) and ROSE M. SCOTT (a1)


While recent studies suggest children can use cross-situational information to learn words, these studies involved minimal referential ambiguity, and the cross-situational evidence overwhelmingly favored a single referent for each word. Here we asked whether 2·5-year-olds could identify a noun's referent when the scene and cross-situational evidence were more ambiguous. Children saw four trials in which a novel word occurred with four novel objects; only one object consistently co-occurred with the word across trials. The frequency of distracter objects varied across conditions. When all distracter referents occurred only once (no-competition), children successfully identified the noun's referent. When a high-probability competitor referent occurred on three trials, children identified the target referent if the competitor was absent on the third trial (short-competition) but not if it was present until the fourth trial (long-competition). This suggests that although 2·5-year-olds’ cross-situational learning scales up to more ambiguous scenes, it is disrupted by high-probability competitor referents.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Rose M. Scott, School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts, University of California Merced, 5200 North Lake Road, Merced, CA 95343. tel: (209) 228-4362; e-mail:


Hide All

This research was supported by grants from the University of California Merced Graduate Research Council to John Bunce and Rose M. Scott, and by a grant from the Hellman Fellows Fund to Rose M. Scott. We thank Anne Warlaumont for helpful feedback on the manuscript, the staff of the UC Merced Center for Early Cognition and Language for their assistance with data collection, and the parents, children, and students who participated in this research.



Hide All
Akhtar, N. & Montague, L. (1999). Early lexical acquisition: the role of cross-situational learning. First Language 19, 347–58.
Ankowski, A. A., Vlach, H. A. & Sandhofer, C. M. (2013). Comparison versus contrast: task specifics affect category acquisition. Infant and Child Development 22, 123.
Arunachalam, S. & Waxman, S. R. (2010). Meaning from syntax: evidence from 2-year-olds. Cognition 114, 442–6.
Aslin, R. N., Woodward, J. Z., LaMendola, N. P. & Bever, T. G. (1996). Models of word segmentation in fluent maternal speech to infants. In Morgan, J. L. & Demuth, K. (eds), Signal to syntax, 117–34. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Baldwin, D. A. (1993). Infants’ ability to consult the speaker for clues to word reference. Journal of Child Language 20, 395418.
Bernal, S., Lidz, J., Millotte, S. & Christophe, A. (2007). Syntax constrains the acquisition of verb meaning. Language Learning and Development 3, 325–41.
Carey, S. (1978). The child as word learner. In Halle, M., Bresnan, J. & Miller, G. A. (eds), Linguistic theory and psychological reality, 264–93. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Cauvet, E., Limissuri, R., Millotte, S., Skoruppa, K., Cabrol, D. & Christophe, A. (2014). Function words constrain on-line recognition of verbs and nouns in French 18-month-olds. Language Learning and Development 10, 118.
Chen, C. & Yu, C. (2015). The effects of learning and retrieval contexts on cross-situational word learning. In Proceedings of the Joint IEEE International Conference on Development and Learning and Epigenetic Robotics (ICDL-Epirob).
Childers, J. B. (2011). Attention to multiple events helps two-and-a-half-year-olds extend new verbs. First Language 31, 322.
Childers, J. B., Hirshkowitz, A. & Benavides, K. (2014). Attention to explicit and implicit contrast in verb learning. Journal of Cognition and Development 15, 213–37.
Childers, J. B. & Paik, J. H. (2009). Korean- and English-speaking children use cross-situational information to learn novel predicate terms. Journal of Child Language 36, 201–24.
Dale, P. S. & Fenson, L. (1996). Lexical development norms for young children. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments & Computers 28, 125–7.
Dautriche, I. & Chemla, E. (2014). Cross-situational word learning in the right situations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 40, 892903.
Fazly, A., Alishahi, A. & Stevenson, S. (2010). A probabilistic computational model of cross-situational word learning. Cognitive Science 34, 1017–63.
Fennell, C. T. & Waxman, S. R. (2010). What paradox? Referential cues allow for infant use of phonetic detail in word learning. Child Development 81, 1376–83.
Fenson, L., Marchman, V. A., Thal, D. J., Dale, P. S., Reznick, J. S. & Bates, E. (2007). MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories. Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing.
Fisher, C., Hall, D. G., Rakowitz, S. & Gleitman, L. R. (1994). When it is better to receive than to give: syntactic and conceptual constraints on vocabulary growth. Lingua 92, 333–75.
Fisher, C., Klingler, S. L. & Song, H. J. (2006). What does syntax say about space? 2-year-olds use sentence structure to learn new prepositions. Cognition 101, B1929.
Frank, M. C., Goodman, N. & Tenenbaum, J. (2009). Using speakers’ referential intentions to model early cross-situational word learning. Psychological Science 20, 578–85.
Gillette, J., Gleitman, H., Gleitman, L. & Lederer, A. (1999). Human simulations of vocabulary learning. Cognition 73, 135–76.
Gleitman, L. R. (1990). The structural sources of verb meanings. Language Acquisition 1, 355.
Gleitman, L. R., Cassidy, K., Nappa, R., Papafragou, A. & Trueswell, J. C. (2005). Hard words. Language Learning and Development 1, 2364.
Harris, M., Jones, D. & Grant, J. (1983). The nonverbal context of mothers’ speech to infants. First Language 4, 2130.
Hothorn, T., Bretz, F. & Westfall, P. (2008). Simultaneous inference in general parametric models. Biometrical Journal 50, 346–63.
Jaeger, T. F. (2008). Categorical data analysis: away from ANOVAs (transformation or not) and towards logit mixed models. Journal of Memory and Language 59, 434–46.
Jørgensen, R. N., Dale, P. S., Bleses, D. & Fenson, L. (2010). CLEX: a cross-linguistic lexical norms database. Journal of Child Language 37, 419–28.
Markman, E. M. & Wachtel, G. F. (1988). Children's use of mutual exclusivity to constrain the meanings of words. Cognitive Psychology 20, 121–57.
Medina, T. N., Snedeker, J., Trueswell, J. & Gleitman, L. R. (2011). How words can and cannot be learned by observation. PNAS 108, 9014–9.
Messenger, K., Yuan, S. & Fisher, C. (2015). Learning verb syntax via listening: new evidence from 22-month-olds. Language Learning and Development 11, 356–68.
Mintz, T. H. (2006). Finding the verbs: distributional cues to categories available to young learners. In Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R. M. (eds), Action meets word: how children learn verbs, 3163. New York: Oxford University Press.
Namy, L. L. & Clepper, L. E. (2010). The differing roles of comparison and contrast in children's categorization. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 107, 291305.
Nappa, R., Wessel, A., McEldoon, K. L., Gleitman, L. R. & Trueswell, J. C. (2009). Use of speaker's gaze and syntax in verb learning. Language Learning and Development 5, 203–34.
Pereira, A. F., Smith, L. B. & Yu, C. (2014). A bottom-up view of toddler word learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 21, 178–85.
Pinheiro, J., Bates, D., DebRoy, S., Sarkar, D. & R Core Team (2016). nlme: Linear and Nonlinear Mixed Effects Models. R package version 3.1-124, online: <>.
Pinker, S. (1984). Language learnability and language development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
R Core Team (2014). R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. Online: <>.
Rubio-Fernández, P. & Geurts, B. (2013). How to pass the false-belief task before your fourth birthday. Psychological Science 24, 2733.
Scott, R. M. & Fisher, C. (2009). Two-year-olds use distributional cues to interpret transitivity-alternating verbs. Language and Cognitive Processes 24, 777803.
Scott, R. M. & Fisher, C. (2012). 2·5-year-olds use cross-situational consistency to learn verbs under referential uncertainty. Cognition 122, 163–80.
Scott, R. M. & Roby, E. (2015). Processing demands impact 3-year-olds’ performance in a spontaneous-response task: new evidence for the processing-load account of early false-belief understanding. PLoS ONE 10, e0142405.
Siskind, J. M. (1996). A computational study of cross-situational techniques for learning word-to-meaning mappings. Cognition 61, 3991.
Smith, K., Smith, A. D. M. & Blythe, R. A. (2011). Cross-situational learning: an experimental study of word-learning mechanisms. Cognitive Science 35, 480–98.
Smith, L. B., Jones, S. S., Landau, B., Gershkoff-Stowe, L. & Samuelson, L. (2002). Object name learning provides on-the-job training for attention. Psychological Science 13, 13–9.
Smith, L. B. & Yu, C. (2008). Infants rapidly learn word–referent mappings via cross-situational statistics. Cognition 106, 1558–68.
Suanda, S. H., Foster, S. B., Smith, L. B. & Yu, C. (2013). Attentional constraints and statistics in toddlers’ word learning. In Proceedings of the Joint IEEE International Conference on Development and Learning and Epigenetic Robotics (ICDL-Epirob).
Suanda, S. H., Mugwanya, N. & Namy, L. L. (2014). Cross-situational statistical word learning in young children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 126, 395411.
Tanenhaus, M. K., Spivey-Knowlton, M. J., Eberhard, K. M. & Sedivy, J. C. (1995). Integration of visual and linguistic information in spoken language comprehension. Science 268, 1632–4.
Trueswell, J. C., Medina, T. N., Hafri, A. & Gleitman, L. R. (2013). Propose but verify: fast mapping meets cross-situational word learning. Cognitive Psychology 66, 126–56.
Vlach, H. A. & Johnson, S. P. (2013). Memory constraints on infants’ cross-situational statistical learning. Cognition 127, 375–82.
Vouloumanos, A. & Werker, J. F. (2009). Infants’ learning of novel words in a stochastic environment. Developmental Psychology 45, 1611–7.
Waxman, S. R. & Booth, A. E. (2001). Seeing pink elephants: fourteen-month-olds’ interpretations of novel nouns and adjectives. Cognitive Psychology 43, 217–42.
Waxman, S. R. & Klibanoff, R. S. (2000). The role of comparison in the extension of novel adjectives. Developmental Psychology 36, 571–81.
Waxman, S. R., Lidz, J. L., Braun, I. E. & Lavin, T. (2009). Twenty four-month-old infants’ interpretations of novel verbs and nouns in dynamic scenes. Cognitive Psychology 59, 6795.
Yazdi, A. A., German, T. P., Defeyter, M. A. & Siegal, M. (2006). Competence and performance in belief-desire reasoning across two cultures: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the true about false belief? Cognition 100, 343–68.
Yu, C. (2008). A statistical associative account of vocabulary growth in early word learning. Language Learning and Development 4, 3262.
Yu, C. & Smith, L. B. (2007). Rapid word learning under uncertainty via cross-situational statistics. Psychological Science 18, 414–20.
Yu, C. & Smith, L. B. (2011). What you learn is what you see: using eye movements to study infant cross-situational word learning. Developmental Science 14, 165–80.
Yu, C. & Smith, L. B. (2012). Embodied attention and word learning by toddlers. Cognition 125, 244–62.
Yuan, S. & Fisher, C. (2009). ‘Really? She blicked the baby?’ Two-year-olds learn combinatorial facts about verbs by listening. Psychological Science 20, 619–26.
Yuan, S., Fisher, C. & Snedeker, J. (2012). Counting the nouns: simple structural cues to verb meaning. Child Development 83, 1382–99.
Yurovsky, D. & Frank, M. C. (2015). An integrative account of constraints on cross-situational learning. Cognition 145, 5362.
Yurovsky, D., Fricker, D. C., Yu, C. & Smith, L. (2014). The role of partial knowledge in statistical word learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 21, 122.
Yurovsky, D., Hidaka, S., Yu, C. & Smith, L. B. (2010). Linking learning to looking: habituation and association in infant statistical language learning. In Ohlsson, S. & Catrambone, R. (eds), Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 1589–94. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
Yurovsky, D., Smith, L. B. & Yu, C. (2013). Statistical word learning at scale: the baby's view is better. Developmental Science 16, 959–66.
Yurovsky, D., Yu, C. & Smith, L. B. (2013). Competitive processes in cross-situational word learning. Cognitive Science 37, 891921.
Zhang, Z., Shi, R. & Li, A. (2015). Grammatical categorization in Mandarin-Chinese-learning infants. Language Acquisition 22, 105114.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed