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Links between Social Understanding and Early Word Learning: Challenges to Current Accounts

Abstract If young children approached word learning with little social savvy, certain predictable patterns of error would arise in the way they interpret new words. The absence of such errors provides evidence that social understanding informs word learning even in the infancy period. We outline such evidence, and then scrutinize it with respect to four challenges. 1) Is it necessary to invoke genuine social understanding to explain infants’ word‐learning successes? 2) Do infants treat social clues as criterial in their interpretation of new words? 3) Individuals suffering clear deficits in social understanding sometimes display apparently intact vocabulary acquisition: Must we then conclude that word learning can proceed without the aid of social understanding? 4) Is processing of social clues too effortful to be generally useful for everyday word learning? The first challenge is answered by the available evidence: Infants indeed capitalize on social understanding to interpret new words. Although the remaining challenges have yet to be resolved, we offer speculations that might profitably guide future investigation.

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