Social cues modulate the representations underlying cross-situational learning

Kyle MacDonald, Daniel Yurvosky, and Michael C. Frank

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Because children hear language in environments that contain many things to talk about, learning the meaning of even the simplest word requires making inferences under uncertainty. A cross-situational statistical learner can aggregate across naming events to form stable word-referent mappings, but this approach neglects an important source of information that can reduce referential uncertainty: social cues from speakers (e.g., eye gaze). In four large-scale experiments with adults, we tested the effects of varying referential uncertainty in cross-situational word learning using social cues. Social cues shifted learners away from tracking multiple hypotheses and towards storing only a single hypothesis (Experiments 1 and 2). In addition, learners were sensitive to graded changes in the strength of a social cue, and when it became less reliable, they were more likely to store multiple hypotheses (Experiment 3). Finally, learners stored fewer word-referent mappings in the presence of a social cue even when visual inspection time was equivalent to naming events without a social cue present (Experiment 4). Taken together, our data suggest that the representations underlying cross-situational word learning are quite flexible: In conditions of greater uncertainty, learners store a broader range of information.