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Caregivers use gesture contingently to support word learning

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

Article numbere13098
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>31/07/2021
<mark>Journal</mark>Developmental Science
Issue number4
Number of pages15
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date8/03/21
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Children learn words in environments where there is considerable variability, both in terms of the number of possible referents for novel words, and the availability of cues to support word-referent mappings. How caregivers adapt their gestural cues to referential uncertainty has not yet been explored. We tested a computational model of cross-situational word learning that examined the value of a variable gesture cue during training across conditions of varying referential uncertainty. We found that gesture had a greater benefit for referential uncertainty, but unexpectedly also found that learning was best when there was variability in both the environment (number of referents) and gestural cue use. We demonstrated that these results are reflected behaviourally in an experimental word learning study involving children aged 18-24-month-olds and their caregivers. Under similar conditions to the computational model, caregivers not only used gesture more when there were more potential referents for novel words, but children also learned best when there was some referential ambiguity for words. Thus, caregivers are sensitive to referential uncertainty in the environment and adapt their gestures accordingly, and children are able to respond to environmental variability to learn more robustly. These results imply that training under variable circumstances may actually benefit learning, rather than hinder it.