Linguistics and English Language

Bilingualism reading group

Speaker: Kate Repnik (University of Edinburgh)

Title: Onset of disambiguation as word learning strategy delayed in multilingual infants – Insights from eye-tracking research

Abstract: As children’s ability to infer meanings in ambiguous contexts improves, they rapidly acquire new words (Byers-Heinlein & Werker, 2009). To break down the complexity of word learning children might use certain language/domain-specific inferential learning constraints, such as ‘disambiguation’ (e.g. Markman, 1991; Halberda, 2003), which has been regarded as typical for monolingual children. Disambiguation describes the assumption that new words tend to refer to new referents precluding the application of a novel label to a familiar object. This means that children assume that each concept or object only has one label.

However, newer associative network models (Roder, et al. 2000) describe lexical development with domain-general learning processes that contribute to ‘in-the-moment’ referent selection, whilst also considering ecological and environmental factors. Associative learning enables a process which helps children build and strengthen correct word-object mappings, and prune links between labels and incorrect objects (Kucker et al., 2015) gradually over time. The result of this process would lead to “appropriately structure or pruned associative networks” (ibid., p. 77). Unlike traditional accounts, word learning is not regarded as a sequence of steps. Rather it is a combination of fast and slow mapping processes, which operate on distinct but interactive time-scales that might impact learning simultaneously and create a dynamic lexical system. According to this view, disambiguation is the product of prior episodes of learning, which are the consequence rather than the cause of a pruned associative network

Interestingly, multilingual children (aged 18 months) make less use of disambiguation than their monolingual peers (Byers-Heinlein & Werker, 2009). However, these studies did not control for within vs. across language disambiguation. This was because (a) they included translation equivalents which can lead to interference from the untested to tested language, and (b) they did not include different language testing modes for multilinguals (i.e. no bilingual (switch) mode).

The central question addressed in this research is: do multilingual children differentiate between different kinds of disambiguation (i.e. within vs. across languages) when mapping novel labels to an object? If they do, it would imply that multilinguals do indeed have well structured networks, but that these networks are not as strongly linked and more independent of each other. In the present study, we focused on across languages disambiguation. To avoid interference of translation equivalents and test the replicability of previous findings, we familiarized children with a new item. The research questions we addressed were (a) whether children disambiguate and retain the trained word-object mapping, and (b) how age and language background modulate disambiguation and retention.

Eye-tracking data from 18, 24, and 30-month-old monolingual and multilingual infants were collected. In total, 57 children (21 female) from monolingual English (n=28) and multilingual (English plus any language, n=29) backgrounds were tested. They were exposed to a looking-while-listening paradigm with two objects on screen. Trials included two familiar items (ball, car), a novel item (dax), and a trained item (nil). Results were analyzed using mixed-effects regression models. In significant interactions on disambiguation trials with target items, language background, and age, we found that age modulated the use of disambiguation for multilingual infants indicating that they start relying more on disambiguation as they get older. The youngest monolingual infants (aged 18m) perform better on disambiguation trials than their multilingual peers, however, already by the age of 24 months this difference is leveled out. Results also indicate that only 24- and 30-month-olds could retain the trained word-object pairing with an interaction of language background for the 30-month-olds. The learning curve for multilingual infants on retention trials from 18 to 30 months old is significantly steeper than the one of their monolingual peers. Performing better on retention trials as 30-month-olds and making more use of disambiguation at that age, one first conclusion to draw from these results is that multilinguals start using disambiguation at a later stage, and furthermore, is a suitable strategy also for them to retain words. A possible interpretation under the associative network account is that multilinguals need more time than monolinguals to make the same type of strong connections, and build a similarly structured network in order to make effective use of disambiguation. The fact that multilinguals have acquired words prior to making use of disambiguation strongly suggests that disambiguation can be regarded more as a boosting learning strategy that draw on existing knowledge rather than being a strategy for initial word learning.


  • Byers-Heinlein, K., & Werker, J. (2009). Monolingual, bilingual, trilingual: Infants’ language experience influences the development of a word-learning heuristic. Developmental Science, 12, 815-823.
  • Halberda, J. (2003). The development of a word-learning strategy. Cognition, 87, 23-34.
  • Kucker, S.C., McMurray, B., & Samuelson L.K. (2015). Slow down fast mapping: Redefining the dynamics of word learning. Child Dev Perspect, 9, 74-78.
  • Markman, E. M. (1991). Categorization and naming in children: Problems of induction. Cam-bridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Roder, B.J., Bushnell, E.W., & Sasseville, A.M. (2000). Infants' preferences for familiarity and novelty during the course of visual processing. Infancy, 1, 491-507.


Please contact Lihua Xia or Martha Robinson to find out specific dates for this semester and/or to be added on the mailing list.

Lihua Xia

Martha Robinson


Mar 26 2018 -

Bilingualism reading group

2018-03-26: Onset of disambiguation as word learning strategy delayed in multilingual infants – Insights from eye-tracking research

Room S38, Psychology Building, 7 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9JZ