Continuous developmental change explains discontinuities in word learning

Abdellah Fourtassi, Sophie Regan & Michael C. Frank

Developmental Science (2021) 24:e13018.

Cognitive development is often characterized in terms of discontinuities, but these discontinuities can sometimes be apparent rather than actual and can arise from continuous developmental change. To explore this idea, we use as a case study the finding by Stager and Werker (1997) that children’s early ability to distinguish similar sounds does not automatically translate into word learning skills. Early explanations proposed that children may not be able to encode subtle phonetic contrasts when learning novel word meanings, thus suggesting a discontinuous/stage‐like pattern of development. However, later work has revealed (e.g., through using more precise testing methods) that children do encode such contrasts, thus favoring a continuous pattern of development. Here, we propose a probabilistic model that represents word knowledge in a graded fashion and characterizes developmental change as improvement in the precision of this graded knowledge. Our model explained previous findings in the literature and provided a new prediction – the referents’ visual similarity modulates word learning accuracy. The models’ predictions were corroborated by human data collected from both preschool children and adults. The broader impact of this work is to show that computational models, such as ours, can help us explore the extent to which episodes of cognitive development that are typically thought of as discontinuities may emerge from simpler, continuous mechanisms.

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