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All the Right Noises: Background Variability Helps Early Word Learning

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>1/05/2018
<mark>Journal</mark>Cognitive Science
Issue numberSuppl. 2
Volume42 Suppl 2
Number of pages26
Pages (from-to)413-438
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date23/09/17
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Variability is prevalent in early language acquisition, but, whether it supports or hinders learning is unclear; while target variability has been shown to facilitate word learning, variability in competitor items has been shown to make the task harder. Here, we tested whether background variability could boost learning in a referent selection task. Two groups of 2-year-old children saw arrays of one novel and two known objects on a screen, and they heard a novel or known label. Stimuli were identical across conditions, with the exception that in the constant color condition objects appeared on a uniform white background, and in the variable color condition backgrounds were different, uniform colors. At test, only children in the variable condition showed evidence of retaining label-object associations. These data support findings from the adult memory literature, which suggest that variability supports learning by decontextualizing representations. We argue that these data are consistent with dynamic systems accounts of learning in which low-level entropy adds sufficient noise to the developmental system to precipitate a change in behavior.