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Nothing Never Happens

Students in Dr. Renner’s COGS 102B: Cognitive Ethnography class spent the 10-week winter quarter tuning their cognitoscopes... (more)

Pajak, B., Creel, S. C., & Levy, R. (In press). Difficulty in learning similar-sounding words: a developmental stage or a general property of learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.
How are languages learned, and to what extent are learning mechanisms similar in infant native-language (L1) and adult second-language (L2) acquisition? In terms of vocabulary acquisition, we know from the infant literature that the ability to discriminate similar-sounding words at a particular age does not guarantee successful word–meaning mapping at that age (Stager & Werker, 1997). However, it is unclear whether this difficulty arises from developmental limitations of young infants (e.g., poorer working memory) or whether it is an intrinsic part of the initial word learning, L1 and L2 alike. In this study, we show that adults of particular L1 backgrounds—just like young infants—have difficulty learning similar-sounding L2 words that they can nevertheless discriminate perceptually. This suggests that the early stages of word learning, whether L1 or L2, intrinsically involve difficulty in mapping similar- sounding words onto referents. We argue that this is due to an interaction between 2 main factors: (a) memory limitations that pose particular challenges for highly similar-sounding words, and (b) uncertainty regarding the language’s phonetic categories, because the categories are being learned concurrently with words. Overall, our results show that vocabulary acquisition in infancy and adulthood shares more similarities than previously thought, thus supporting the existence of common learning mechanisms that operate throughout the life span.
Creel, S. C., Rojo, D. P., & Paullada, A. N. (In press). Effects of contextual support on preschoolers’ accented speech comprehension. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.
Young children often hear speech in unfamiliar accents, but relatively little research characterizes their comprehension capacity. The current study tested preschoolers’ comprehension of familiar-accented vs. unfamiliar-accented speech with varying levels of contextual support from sentence frames (full sentences vs. isolated words) and from visual context (four salient pictured alternatives, vs. the absence of salient visual referents). The familiar-accent advantage was more robust when visual context was absent, suggesting that previous findings of good accent comprehension in infants and young children may result from ceiling effects in easier tasks (picture fixation, picture selection) relative to the more-difficult tasks often used with older children and adults. In contrast to prior work on mispronunciations, where most errors were novel-object responses, children in the current study did not select novel-object referents above chance levels. This suggests that some property of accented speech may dissuade children from inferring that an unrecognized familiar-but-accented word has a novel referent. Finally, children showed detectable accent processing difficulty despite presumed incidental community exposure. Results suggest that preschoolers’ accented speech comprehension is still developing, consistent with theories of protracted development of speech processing.
Creel, S. C. (In press). Ups and downs in auditory development: Preschoolers’ sensitivity to pitch contour and timbre. Cognitive Science Journal.
Much research has explored developing sound representations in language, but less work addresses developing representations of other sound patterns. This study examined preschool children’s musical representations using two different tasks: discrimination and sound–picture association. Melodic contour—a musically relevant property—and instrumental timbre, which is (arguably) less musically relevant, were tested. In Experiment 1, children failed to associate cartoon characters to melodies with maximally different pitch contours, with no advantage for melody preexposure. Experiment 2 also used different-contour melodies and found good discrimination, whereas association was at chance. Experiment 3 replicated Experiment 2, but with a large timbre change instead of a contour change. Here, discrimination and association were both excellent. Preschool-aged children may have stronger or more durable representations of timbre than contour, particularly in more difficult tasks. Reasons for weaker association of contour than timbre information are discussed, along with implications for auditory development.
Cooperrider, K., Slotta, J., and Núñez, R. (2016). Uphill and Downhill in a Flat World: The Conceptual Topography of the Yupno House. Cognitive Science.
Speakers of many languages around the world rely on body-­‐based contrasts (e.g. left/right) for spatial communication and cognition. Speakers of Yupno, a language of Papua New Guinea’s mountainous interior, rely instead on an environment-­‐based uphill/downhill contrast. Body-­‐based contrasts are as easy to use indoors as outdoors, but environment-­‐ based contrasts may not be. Do Yupno speakers still use uphill/downhill contrasts indoors and, if so, how? We report three studies on spatial communication within the Yupno house. Even in this Hlat world, uphill/downhill contrasts are pervasive. However, the terms are not used according to the slopes beyond the house’s walls, as reported in other groups. Instead, the house is treated as a microworld, with a "conceptual topography" that is strikingly reminiscent of the physical topography of the Yupno valley. The phenomenon illustrates some of the distinctive properties of environment-­‐based reference systems, as well as the universal power and plasticity of spatial contrasts.

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