Susan Teubner-Rhodes · IGERT lunch talk: When good predictions go bad: The role of cognitive control in word learning from syntax
Young children have both poor cognitive control (CC) and difficulty overriding temporary misinterpretations during language processing. We explored whether CC supports syntax-based word-learning when children have to revise misinterpretations. Using preferential-looking, we tested whether 20-month-olds could use syntax to assign meaning (instrument vs. patient) to novel nouns in sentences containing patient-biased verbs (“She’s pushing with the blicket” vs. “She’s pushing the blicket”). We also assessed infants’ CC using a working memory game. High- and low-CC infants preferred the correct interpretation in “patient” sentences (when verb-bias matched the syntax-based interpretation), but only high-CC infants preferred the correct interpretation in “instrument” sentences (when verb-bias mismatched the syntax-based interpretation). Thus, individual differences in CC in 20-month-olds predict performance on a syntax-driven word-learning task, but only when assigning the correct syntax-based interpretation requires overriding a conflicting verb-bias. Apparently, young children employ cognitive control to resolve syntactic ambiguity, thereby aiding word learning from syntax.