Linking disambiguation and retention in a developmental eye-tracking study with monolingual and multilingual children

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

The disambiguation effect, also referred to as process of elimination, occurs during word learning, whereby novel words are mapped onto new referents, precluding the application of a novel label to a familiar object. Prior studies showed that the emergence and use of disambiguation can be affected by children’s vocabulary growth and linguistic experience, such as growing up with more than one language. To test this, we investigated (a) whether monolingual and multilingual children disambiguated a novel word–object mapping, (b) whether they retained a trained, previously seen word–object mapping, (c) whether they retained the novel fast-mapped word–object mapping, and (d) whether and how age, English vocabulary size, and language background modulated disambiguation and retention. Lastly, we tested (e) whether children who disambiguated also retained better. Eye-tracking data from 18- to 30-month-old monolingual children (n = 43) and multilingual children (n = 40) were collected. A looking-while-listening paradigm with two objects included two familiar items, one novel item, and one trained item. Mixed-effect models reported that vocabulary size predicted the outcome of mapping and retention better than age. Monolingual children’s accuracy on disambiguation trials was high from the start, whereas multilingual children started to disambiguate later as their vocabulary grew. Only monolingual children performed above chance level on retaining the novel label. Lastly, the use of disambiguation improved retention for monolingual children but not for multilingual children. This research corroborates that disambiguation should be regarded as a mechanism facilitating default fast mapping rather than fully fledged learning. Vocabulary growth leading to an increase in disambiguation supports the notion that the disambiguation effect stems from prior episodes of learning.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105072
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date11 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • disambiguation
  • mutual exclusivity
  • fast mapping
  • retention
  • word learning
  • multilingualism


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