The ‘blowfish effect’: Children learn new words like adults do, say Princeton researchers

July 25, 2019

Researchers from the Princeton Baby Lab study how babies learn to see, talk and understand the world.

In a series of experiments with children 3 to 5 years old, a team of Princeton researchers from the Princeton Baby Lab found that when children are learning new nouns, they use what they know about these objects — how typical or unusual they are for their categories (such as fish, dog, bird or flower) — to help them figure out what these words mean. This type of sophisticated reasoning was thought to only develop later.

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In word-learning experiments, children saw examples at the top of an iPad screen, identified by a new word like “galt,” and then 12 more images below. After being asked, “Can you find the galts?” they could select as many images as they wanted. The researchers were testing whether 3- to 5-year-olds would decide a “galt” only meant the specific creature in the examples — a poodle, in this case — or if they would apply it more generally to all dogs. They found that the more unusual the example creature, the more likely the children were to apply the term narrowly. iPad screenshot courtesy of the researchers

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