The acquisition of abstract words by young infants.

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Young infants' learning of words for abstract concepts like 'all gone' and 'eat,' in contrast to their learning of more concrete words like 'apple' and 'shoe,' may follow a relatively protracted developmental course. We examined whether infants know such abstract words. Parents named one of two events shown in side-by-side videos while their 6-16-month-old infants (n=98) watched. On average, infants successfully looked at the named video by 10 months, but not earlier, and infants' looking at the named referent increased robustly at around 14 months. Six-month-olds already understand concrete words in this task (Bergelson & Swingley, 2012). A video-corpus analysis of unscripted mother-infant interaction showed that mothers used the tested abstract words less often in the presence of their referent events than they used concrete words in the presence of their referent objects. We suggest that referential uncertainty in abstract words' teaching conditions may explain the later acquisition of abstract than concrete words, and we discuss the possible role of changes in social-cognitive abilities over the 6-14 month period.





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Bergelson, Elika, and Daniel Swingley (2013). The acquisition of abstract words by young infants. Cognition, 127(3). pp. 391–397. 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.02.011 Retrieved from

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Elika Bergelson

Associate Research Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

Dr. Bergelson's lab has moved to Harvard Psychology; she retains an unremunerated research appointment at Duke through mid-2024 for logistical reasons. She formerly accepted PhD applicants through the Developmental and Cog/CogNeuro areas of P&N and the CNAP program.

In my research, I try to understand the interplay of processes during language acquisition.
In particular, I am interested in how word learning relates to other aspects of learning language (e.g. speech sound acquisition, grammar/morphology learning), and social/cognitive development more broadly (e.g. joint attention processes) in the first few years of life.

I pursue these questions using three main approaches: in-lab measures of early comprehension and production (eye-tracking, looking-time, and in EEG studies in collaboration with the Woldorff lab), and at-home measures of infants' linguistic and social environment (as in the SEEDLingS project).

More recently the lab is branching out to look at a wider range of human populations and at infants who are blind or deaf/heard of hearing.

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