Using lexical context to discover the noun category: Younger children have it easier

Philip A. Huebner, Jon A. Willits

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Prior work has demonstrated that distributional dependencies between word or morpheme-like entities in artificial and naturalistic language can detect clusters of words which broadly conform to the categories of the adult language (Brent & Siskind, 2001; Mintz, 2002; Redington & Chater, 1998). In this work, we examine the hypothesis that the distributional statistics useful for the discovery of the noun category are more useful in speech to younger children compared to older children (approximately 1–3 vs 3–6 years of age). First, using a novel method for quantifying the extent that nouns occur in mutually shared contexts, we demonstrate an advantage for speech to younger compared to older children. Second, we develop a theoretical framework for understanding why caregiver speech might be scaffolded in this way, and test its predictions against information theoretic patterns computed on child-directed speech. Our account, based on entropy maximization, and anchoring originally proposed by Cameron-Faulkner, Lieven, and Tomasello (2003), clarifies issues in incremental learning from nonstationary input—the problem faced by language learners—and paves the way toward integrating the scaffolded organization of children's early language environment into computational models of acquisition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Context of Cognition
Subtitle of host publicationEmerging Perspectives
EditorsKara D. Federmeier, Lili Sahakyan
PublisherAcademic Press Inc.
Number of pages53
ISBN (Print)9780323901352
StatePublished - Jan 2021

Publication series

NamePsychology of Learning and Motivation - Advances in Research and Theory
ISSN (Print)0079-7421


  • Child-directed Speech
  • Corpus analysis
  • Distributional learning
  • Language acquisition
  • Lexical context
  • Noun category

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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