Continuous developmental change can explain discontinuities in word learning

AbstractCognitive development is often characterized in term of discontinuities, but these discontinuities can sometimes be apparent rather than actual and can arise from continuous developmental change. To explore this idea, we use as a case study the finding by Stager and Werker (1997) that children's early ability to distinguish similar sounds does not automatically translate into word learning skills. Early explanations proposed that children may not be able to encode subtle phonetic contrasts when learning novel word meanings, thus suggesting a discontinuous/stage-like pattern of development. However, later work has revealed (e.g., through using simpler testing methods) that children do encode such contrasts, thus favoring a continuous pattern of development. Here we propose a probabilistic model describing how development may proceed in a continuous fashion across the lifespan. The model accounts for previously documented facts and provides new predictions. We collected data from preschool children and adults, and we showed that the model can explain various patterns of learning both within the same age and across development. The findings suggest that major aspects of cognitive development that are typically thought of as discontinuities, may emerge from simpler, continuous mechanisms.

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