Children's Language Acquisition

Cultural Bias.during Word Learning

2011 - 2012
supervisor: Dr. Douglas A. Behrend


Children are known to use various learning biases to efficiently develop their language skills. Prior studies have confirmed that young children keep track of reliability histories of possible teachers in order to selectively learn words. Furthermore, it has been shown that they are less likely to learn from foreign language speakers or foreign names of objects. Recent studies even indicated that children seem to change their patterns of learning just by hearing the cultural background of the target objects. The purpose of this thesis is to investigate the cultural bias in word learning among 2- to 3-year-olds. We hypothesized that children would be less likely to learn object names and functions when they were told those objects and/or the teacher were from another country. The result of the experiment showed no evidence to support this hypothesis; however, we found that participants performed very poorly in the novel word learning task, yet very well on the novel function learning task. Possible reasons for these findings are discussed.

1. Introduction

Reliability of Teachers

Sabbagh and Baldwin (2001)
  • 3- and 4-year-olds
  • I.V.: knowledge state of teachers
  • When children are explicitly expressed speaker’s knowledge or ignorance, they learn better from knowledgeable speakers.
Koenig and Harris (2005)
  • 4-year-olds
  • I.V.: knowledge state of teachers
  • Even when they are implicitly expressed speaker’s knowledge or ignorance, they learn better from knowledgeable speakers.

Cultural Bias

Behrend, Ransom, Schwartz, & Bogulski (2010)
  • 3- and 4-year-olds
  • I.V.1 : Teacher’s native language
  • I.V.2: Knowledge state of teachers
  • Children trusted ignorant English speaker over knowledgeable Spanish speaker
Henderson and Sabbagh (2007)
  • 3- and 4-year-olds
  • I.V.: cultural background information of target object
  • 4-year-olds learned more when they were told the toys were from their community

2. Current Study


  • To extend our understanding of the relationship between learning and a culture in children’s language development. 
  • Research question:
    • How does the information about the cultural background of a teacher or of target objects would influence word learning by young children?


  • Children would learn objects’ names and functions better
    1. When they are told the objects are from their own linguistic community than from a different linguistic community.
    2. With novel objects than with familiar objects

3. Method


  • Fourteen 2- and 3- year olds.
    • M = 2 years, 10 months
    • SD = 0.75
  • recruited from
    • Families living near campus
    • A day care center around the university
  • They were reworded with a small prize at the end

Variables in the experiment

  • I.V.1 (between-subject)
    • Teacher’s cultural background
  • I.V.2 (between-subject)
    • Objects’ cultural background
  • I.V.3 (within-subject)
    • Familiarity of the target objects
  • I.V.4 (within-subject)
    • Type of learning
  • D.V.
    • Number of correct responses

2 x 2 x 2 x 2 mixed factorial design

  • yellow: between subject design
  • blue: within-subject design

Familiarization trial

  • Taught the associations and tested the comprehension

Test trial

4. Results & Discussion


  • No significant main effect of
    • Cultural background of the objects
    • Cultural background of the teacher
  • Significant main effect of
    • Type of learning (name v. function)


  • No cultural bias was found
    • Why?
      • Too young (M = 2 years, 10 months)
  • No familiarity difference in learning
    • Name learning: 
      →They did not actually learn the name (33.3% accuracy).→No way to show the familiarity differences
  • Function learning:
    • They learned well (86.9 % accuracy) regardless of the familiarity.
      →No mutual exclusivity for function learning
  • Accurate object functions learning and no evidence for names learning
    →novel name mapping skill may arise later than the novel function mapping skill
    • Why?
      • Visually demonstrated novel functions might have enhanced understanding rather than memorization

5. Conclusion


  • 2- and 3- years olds
    • Use neither cultural bias nor exclusive mapping
      →they seem to gradually develop the skills as they grow.
    • Why? Logical inference based on better understanding of the nature of words-objects relationship is required?
    • Do not easily learn names of objects but they learn functions extremely well.→learning functions skill arises earlier stage of the development
      →Why? No need for memorization? More fun?

Possible confounding & improvements

  • Use of larger sample size
  • Use of older children
  • More emphasizes upon the cultural information
  • Use of native English speaking experimenter
  • Use of more distinctive and easily memorable novel words


Akihiro Nakashima,
Aug 11, 2012, 8:42 AM
Akihiro Nakashima,
Aug 11, 2012, 8:41 AM