The Effects of Perceptual Alignment and Linguistic Contrast on Preschoolers’ Indirect Property-Word Learning


Young children can sometimes acquire new vocabulary words—even property terms—through indirect learning (e.g. Carey & Bartlett, 1978). We explore two factors that contribute to this ability—perceptual alignment and linguistic contrast. We propose that spontaneous comparison processes lead children to notice key commonalities and differences that facilitate indirect property word learning. More specifically, we hypothesize that children can quickly map a new property word to its referent when the target property is presented as an alignable difference between two highly similar and alignable objects. To test this, we revisited the Carey and Bartlett paradigm, varying the alignability of objects that 3-and 4-year-olds saw while hearing a novel color word, chromium. The first four studies focused on perceptual alignment. In Experiments 1 and 2, we found that children in the High Alignment condition were significantly better than those in the Low Alignment condition at identifying chromium objects in a subsequent task. Experiments 3 tested a direct pedagogy condition; as predicted, the results differed markedly from those of the indirect learning condition used in Experiments 1 and 2. Experiment 4 showed that the learning gained through this indirect paradigm was robust. Experiments 5 and 6 focused on alignment and contrast within the linguistic input. We found that children’s indirect word learning was better when presented with high-quality linguistic cues that included semantic contrast in an alignable parallel syntactic structure (e.g., “the chromium one, not the blue one”) than when presented with low-quality linguistic cues. Across the six experiments, we found strong evidence that high perceptual alignment plays a pivotal role in children’s indirect word learning. Linguistic cues also influenced children’s indirect word learning, especially for the 4-year-olds. Overall, these studies shed light on ways of increasing referential transparency that can promote spontaneous indirect learning.

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