Quantity and Diversity: Simulating Early Word Learning Environments

Jessica L. Montag, Michael N. Jones, Linda B. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The words in children's language learning environments are strongly predictive of cognitive development and school achievement. But how do we measure language environments and do so at the scale of the many words that children hear day in, day out? The quantity and quality of words in a child's input are typically measured in terms of total amount of talk and the lexical diversity in that talk. There are disagreements in the literature whether amount or diversity is the more critical measure of the input. Here we analyze the properties of a large corpus (6.5 million words) of speech to children and simulate learning environments that differ in amount of talk per unit time, lexical diversity, and the contexts of talk. The central conclusion is that what researchers need to theoretically understand, measure, and change is not the total amount of words, or the diversity of words, but the function that relates total words to the diversity of words, and how that function changes across different contexts of talk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)375-412
Number of pages38
JournalCognitive Science
StatePublished - May 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Child-directed speech
  • Computer simulation
  • Individual differences
  • Language development
  • Linguistic quantity and quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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