Repetition versus variability in verb learning: Sometimes less is more

Sabrina Horvath, Sudha Arunachalam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: This study examined whether 2-year-olds are better able to acquire novel verb meanings when they appear in varying linguistic contexts, including both content nouns and pronouns, as compared to when the contexts are consistent, including only content nouns. Additionally, differences between typically developing toddlers and late talkers were explored. Method: Forty-seven English-acquiring 2-year-olds (n = 14 late talkers, n = 33 typically developing) saw scenes of actors manipulating objects. These actions were labeled with novel verbs. In the varied condition, children heard sentences containing both content nouns and pronouns (e.g., “The girl is ziffing the truck. She is ziffing it!”). In the consistent condition, children heard the verb an equal number of times, but only with content nouns (e.g., “The girl is ziffing the truck. The girl is ziffing the truck!”). At test, children were shown two new scenes and were asked to find the novel verb’s referent. Children’s eye gaze was analyzed as a measure of learning. Results: Mixed-effects regression analyses revealed that children looked more toward the correct scene in the consistent condition than the varied condition. This difference was more pronounced for late talkers than for typically developing children. Conclusion: To acquire an initial representation of a new verb’s meaning, children, particularly late talkers, benefit more from hearing the verb in consistent linguistic contexts than in varying contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4235-4249
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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