Skip navigation

Calls to Action

The Development of Word Meaning

Iowa City
State/Province Full: 
United States

A new theory of language learning has gained support over the past several years among psycholinguists and more general cognitive scientists. The theory, called the emergentist coalition model (ECM), theorizes that children learn words by paying attention not only to the salience of the object being referred to but also to social cues such as the speaker's gaze toward the object and syntactic cues such as word order. Through NIH funding, augmented by this grant, Dr. McGregor and her colleagues hope to test ECM. They're particularly interested in the less studied second phase of word learning, called “slow mapping,” when the brain begins to develop a more complex understanding of a word's meaning and how it connects to other words. Their study will take advantage of naturally occurring variations among children in their ability to process social cues and syntactic information. In particular, the researchers will compare three groups of children, ages 8 to 13: normally developing children; children with high functioning autism who are poor at processing social cues; and children with specific language impairment who are poor at processing syntactic information. Comparing these groups of children will allow the researchers to determine whether syntactic and social cues are as important for slow mapping as they are for initial word learning. They will also provide a clearer understanding of language impairment among people with autism. This augmentation grant will allow the researchers to expand their study to recruit children with both high functioning autism and specific language impairment. It will also allow them to conduct two new experiments to measure children's knowledge of familiar nouns and verbs. These experiments will provide more detail about how the brain organizes words in these different groups of children. What this means for people with autism: This research will lead to new information about word learning during slow mapping. It will also advance our understanding of the effect of autism spectrum disorders on language development and the nature of language impairment among people with ASD. Ultimately, this information could lead to more effective treatments for enhancing language learning.