("Internet high five." From maniacworld.com).
It's so fun to watch the emergence of language. M just had her first birthday, and – though we still haven't seen much in the way of production beyond "brown bear" (see previous post) and maybe "yum" – she's starting to show some exciting signs of knowing some words. It's endlessly fascinating to gather evidence about her comprehension, but I'm continuously amazed at how tenuous my evidence is for any given word.*
In particular, I've been wondering for the past week or so whether M knows the meaning of the word/phrase "high five." She loves the swings at the playground, and really enjoys playing games while swinging. One day we started doing hand slaps (accompanied by me saying "high five"). After a couple of times playing this game, when I said "high five," she would raise her hands, even without the extra cue of me raising my hands. Word knowledge, right?
It turns out that one persistent question about first words is how contextually-bound they are: whether their meanings are general across contexts, or whether they apply only in specific cases. Some of this is a remnant of older, behaviorist analyses of early language – word A is a conditioned response to situation B – which don't seem to account for the data. Most people who study child language agree that early nouns like "dog" can be generalized across situations quite handily – in fact, overgeneralization is relatively common. But you still see references to "context-specific" language in textbooks and materials for parents (example, example). My goal here is to propose an alternative – rational – account of why much early language looks context specific, even though it's not.
I can see why ideas about context-specific language stick around. When I investigated M's "high five" knowledge further, I was disappointed. Although I could get her to give me a high five on the swings, I simply couldn't elicit the gesture in response to my words when we came home to the house. This looked to me a lot like "high five" was bound to the context of the swing set.
But here's another possibility, in two parts. Part one: Language comprehension for a one-year-old is hard. A well-known set of experiments by Stager & Werker (1998) suggest that even relatively small attentional demands can disrupt the encoding of speech. In their experiments, 14-month-olds (and even 8-month-olds) could distinguish the sounds "bih" and "dih." But the same age children had trouble learning to pair these sounds consistently with different pictures, even though they could do it just fine with more dissimilar words (e.g. "lif" and "neem").
Part two: When you have a hard comprehension task, context can make it easier. Contextual predictability effects have been very well studied in word recognition (example), with the caveat that context is typically defined as being the sentence in which a sound occurs. The basic idea is very Bayesian: a context creates a higher prior probability of a particular sound, which helps in identifying that sound from noisy perceptual input.
So perhaps contextual-boundedness effects in early child language have exactly the same source. When M recognizes "high five," it could be that she is getting a boost from its use in a familiar context, even if she could – in principle – recognize it in another context, given a sufficiently clear and unambiguous signal. Inspired by this idea, I tried asking her again at the house the other day. I said, "M! M! Can you give me a HIGH... FIVE?" in my best child-directed speech. She grinned and reached her hand up for the win. Of course, while I was figuring out my theory, perhaps she was generalizing...
* There are so many reasons why any uncontrolled individual test of comprehension doesn't provide good evidence for her knowledge.** For example, if I'm trying to figure out whether she knows the word "cat," I can't use a book where we have previously pointed to a cat photo, since she tends to come back to parts of the book we've attended to. On the other hand, if I find two new objects (a cat and a ball), typically one will be more exciting than the other. In some of our recent eye-tracking work, we've been finding that salience of this kind has an outsize effect on word recognition (echoing much earlier findings), and the best work on very early word knowledge explicitly measures and subtracts this salience bias.