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Abstract

How infants learn new words is a fundamental puzzle in language acquisition. To guide their word learning, infants exploit systematic word-learning heuristics that allow them to link new words to likely referents. By 17 months, infants show a tendency to associate a novel noun with a novel object rather than a familiar one, a heuristic known as disambiguation. Yet, the developmental origins of this heuristic remain unknown. We compared disambiguation in 17- to 18-month-old infants from different language backgrounds to determine whether language experience influences its development, or whether disambiguation instead emerges as a result of maturation or social experience. Monolinguals showed strong use of disambiguation, bilinguals showed marginal use, and trilinguals showed no disambiguation. The number of languages being learned, but not vocabulary size, predicted performance. The results point to a key role for language experience in the development of disambiguation, and help to distinguish among theoretical accounts of its emergence.