Variability surpasses frequency for language learning

In “Predicting the Birth of a Spoken Word” [PDF]:

Children learn words through an accumulation of interactions grounded in context. …

We show that words used in distinctive spatial, temporal, and linguistic contexts are produced earlier, suggesting they are easier to learn. …

…contextual distinctiveness (whether in space, time, or language) was a strong independent predictor of the child’s production. Each of the three predictors correlated with the child’s production more robustly than frequency, MLU [mean length of utterance], or word length…

Distinctive combinations of contextual features matter more than mere frequency of repetition. Children learn language through meaningful, authentic contexts, suggesting the caregivers and teachers should expose them to and engage them in real-life conversations using varied vocabulary, in varied expressions, about varied topics, in varied situations.

Project-based learning, science talks, and field trips, anyone?


Roy, B. C., Frank, M. C., DeCamp, P., Miller, M., & Roy, D. (2015). Predicting the birth of a spoken word. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(41), 12663-12668.

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