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Keywords:

  • Language development;
  • Word learning;
  • Infancy;
  • Mutual exclusivity;
  • Habituation;
  • Novelty preference

Abstract

What mechanism implements the mutual exclusivity bias to map novel labels to objects without names? Prominent theoretical accounts of mutual exclusivity (e.g., Markman, 1989, 1990) propose that infants are guided by their knowledge of object names. However, the mutual exclusivity constraint could be implemented via monitoring of object novelty (see Merriman, Marazita, & Jarvis, 1995). We sought to discriminate between these contrasting explanations across two preferential looking experiments with 22-month-olds. In Experiment 1, infants viewed three objects: one name-known, two name-unknown. Of the two name-unknown objects, one was novel, and the other had been previously familiarized. The infants responded to hearing a novel label by increasing attention only to the novel, name-unknown object. In a second experiment in which the name-known object was absent, a novel label increased infants’ attention to a novel object beyond baseline preference for novelty. The experiments provide clear evidence for a novelty-based mechanism. However, differences in the time course of disambiguation across experiments suggest that novelty processing may be influenced by contextual factors.