Fast mapping

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Fast Mapping

The process of rapidly learning a new word by contrasting it with a familiar word. This is an important tool that children use during language acquisition.

An example would be presenting a young child with two toy animals - one a familiar creature (a dog) and one unfamiliar (a platypus). When the child is asked to retrieve the platypus a contrast is provided for the child (dog versus unknown creature) which allows them to infer the other creature must be a platypus. Using fast mapping is very effective in new word acquisition with most children being able to recall the new object a week later.

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Fast mapping across time: memory processes support children’s retention of learned words


One of the more remarkable developmental feats is the ease by which children appear to learn new words after the second year of life. Children’s ability to readily map words to referents in the world and retain these mappings over time, with only minimal exposure, is commonly called fast mapping (e.g., Carey and Bartlett, 1978; see Carey, 2010, for a review). Fast mapping behavior has often been described as having two phases: (1) the initial mapping of a linguistic label to a referent, and (2) the subsequent retention and development of the initial representation, originally termed “extended mapping” (Carey and Bartlett, 1978). The majority of research on fast mapping has focused on cues that children use to initially map words to referents. However, less is known about the processes underlying extended mapping. In this study, we focus our investigation on examining children’s retention of fast-mapped words over extended periods of time (i.e., weeks and months) in order to elucidate the memory processes supporting extended mapping and long-term word learning.

Fast Mapping

Children are remarkable word learners – they quickly map a novel name onto a referent with one trial or minimal exposure (e.g., Carey and Bartlett, 1978; Heibeck and Markman, 1987; Woodward et al., 1994; Markson and Bloom, 1997; Goodman et al., 1998; Waxman and Booth, 2000; Behrend et al., 2001; Jaswal and Markman, 2001; Wilkinson and Mazzitelli, 2003; Horst and Samuelson, 2008; Carey, 2010; Spiegel and Halberda, 2011). For example, in Carey and Bartlett’s (1978) seminal study, preschool-aged children were able to select an olive green tray when their school teacher gestured to two trays, one blue and one olive green, and asked them to get “the chromium tray, not the blue one, the chromium one.” After 1 week, children were provided with a brief reminder of the object-label mapping and then given a comprehension test. The majority of children at the comprehension test retained the association of “chromium” to the color of olive green. Subsequent studies have documented fast mapping behavior across a variety of categorical domains (e.g., Heibeck and Markman, 1987) and age groups (e.g., Woodward et al., 1994).

Historically, research on fast mapping has also argued that children retain mappings for surprisingly long amounts of time (see Goodman et al., 1998, for a review; Markson and Bloom, 1997; Waxman and Booth, 2000). In fact, some studies have shown that children do not forget words after a week (e.g., Waxman and Booth, 2000) or up to 1 month later (e.g., Carey and Bartlett, 1978; Markson and Bloom, 1997). For example, one study (Waxman and Booth, 2000) presented children with a word learning task in which one of six novel objects was labeled with a novel name. After the single labeling event, children were given an identification and extension test both immediately and after a 1-week delay. All children (100%) at the 1-week delayed test were able to identify the previously labeled object out of a group of other objects used during the experiment.

In sum, fast mapping behavior includes both the ability to quickly map words to referents in the world and the ability to retain, and build upon, these mappings over time. Although a significant amount of research has focused on the first phase of fast mapping, the initial mapping of words to referents, relatively little research has examined the subsequent processes, such as the retention for these mappings. Consequently, very little is known about the mechanisms underlying children’s retention of word mappings. Why do children appear to remember words for extended periods of time? In this study, we examine word learning over time in order to elucidate the memory processes underlying children’s retention of words. We ground our investigation of word learning in principles and mechanisms of human memory. Specifically, we contextualize our investigation of word learning in terms of forgetting trajectories, which have been well documented by memory research for over 100 years (starting with Ebbinghaus, 1964).

Human Memory: The Ubiquitous Nature of Forgetting

The findings from the fast mapping literature paint the picture that, with only minimal exposure to a word and referent, children know and remember words for extended periods of time. This conclusion is surprising given the large body of memory research that holds the assumption that learned information is forgotten over time. Forgetting is the most ubiquitous characteristic of human memory (see Ebbinghaus, 1964; Shiffrin and Atkinson, 1969; Wickelgren, 1972; Rubin and Wenzel, 1996; Wixted, 2004, for reviews and frameworks of forgetting). Even at a very young age, babies forget information in a similar manner as adults (e.g., Hartshorn et al., 1998; Rovee-Collier et al., 2001).

The natural course of forgetting is described as the relationship between memory and time. As time goes on, the ability to retrieve information declines to a theoretical asymptote of zero. This relationship is commonly characterized by a single mathematical function (e.g., Ebbinghaus, 1964; Wickelgren, 1972; Bahrick, 1984; Loftus, 1985; Anderson and Schooler, 1991; Rubin et al., 1999; Rubin and Wenzel, 1996; White, 2001; Wixted, 2004). Ebbinghaus (1964) was the first to propose a mathematical form of forgetting, a savings function. Since Ebbinghaus (1964) seminal work, researchers have proposed a series of other forgetting functions (see Rubin and Wenzel, 1996; Wixted, 2004; for reviews), including power functions (e.g., Anderson and Schooler, 1991) and exponential-power functions (e.g., White, 2001).

Although forgetting functions may differ on specific dimensions, one similarity across functions is that the rate of forgetting is most rapid initially, but declines as time goes on. That is, forgetting follows a curvilinear pattern, approaching a theoretical asymptote of zero. The curvilinear pattern found in memory tasks is strikingly different than characterizations of word learning performance over time. In particular, fast mapping research commonly characterizes memory for word mappings as a flat, linear pattern over time (e.g., Markson and Bloom, 1997; Goodman et al., 1998; Waxman and Booth, 2000). Because word learning performance has followed a flat, linear pattern, research has concluded that children have high retention of fast-mapped words and do not forget words over time.

Do Children Forget Fast-Mapped Words?

The existing fast mapping literature would suggest that children do not forget newly acquired words over longer periods of time (i.e., weeks and months; e.g., Carey and Bartlett, 1978; Woodward et al., 1994; Goodman et al., 1998; Waxman and Booth, 2000). However, one issue with research on fast mapping is that learning paradigms have commonly been designed to support the high retention of words and prevent forgetting. That is, learning tasks from fast mapping research often incorporate strong memory supports (see Horst and Samuelson, 2008, for a discussion of this issue).

Memory research has long shown that providing memory cues and supports can prevent and/or alter the rate of the forgetting curve by supporting the storage and/or retrieval strength of information (for reviews of these dynamics, see Estes, 1955a,b; Shiffrin and Atkinson, 1969; Wickelgren, 1972; Tulving and Thomson, 1973; Bjork and Bjork, 1992). Examples of such supports include the saliency, repetition, and generation of information. For example, asking participants to generate learned information, during learning, has been show to promote long-term memory to a greater degree than just being presented with information (see Bertsch et al., 2007, for a meta-analysis).

Fast mapping research often incorporates saliency, repetition, and generation into word learning paradigms. In particular, paradigms are often designed so that (1) the labeled object(s) are made more salient than the other objects in the experiment (e.g., Waxman and Booth, 2000), (2) the object is labeled repeatedly, up to nine times (e.g., Woodward et al., 1994), and (3) learners are required to engage in the generation of the mapping and/or word (e.g., Medina et al., 2011). Moreover, many paradigms incorporate a reminder trial immediately preceding the retention test (e.g., Carey and Bartlett, 1978). Thus, the memory supports provided in fast mapping paradigms may be preventing forgetting, and in turn supporting long-term memory for word mappings.

Do children forget fast-mapped words? Because the majority of the existing fast mapping literature has designed word learning paradigms to prevent forgetting, it is unclear what the role of forgetting is in children’s long-term word learning. However, recent work has indicated that children may forget fast-mapped words at a rapid rate (Horst and Samuelson, 2008; Horst et al., 2010; Friedrich and Friederici, 2011; Kucker and Samuelson, 2011). For example, Horst and Samuelson (2008) presented 2-year-old children with a referent selection task and a 5-min delayed retention test. Although children initially had high performance when asked to map words to objects, at the referent selection task, children demonstrated very low performance at the 5-min delayed test. This suggests that, when children are required to retain several mappings for just a few minutes, the majority of these mappings are forgotten. In the current study, we built upon this work by demonstrating that older children and adults forget fast-mapped words when required to remember only a single mapping. Moreover, the current experiments were designed to characterize the nature of forgetting over extended periods of time (i.e., weeks and months).

Current Study

In this series of experiments, we sought to demonstrate and characterize the role of forgetting in children’s retention of fast-mapped words. To do this, we examined word learning and retention over extended periods of time (i.e., weeks and months) with various degrees of memory support. All participants were presented with a game in which they learned a new word during one of the activities. In Experiment 1, children and adults were not provided with the memory supports commonly presented in fast mapping tasks (i.e., saliency, repetition, and generation). This experiment was designed to determine if forgetting of word mappings would occur in the absence of these supports. In Experiment 2, the experimenter provided children with a varying number of memory supports during the labeling activity.

If forgetting is not a central mechanism underlying fast mapping, children should have an enduring memory for fast-mapped words and exhibit high retention over time. Moreover, children should demonstrate high retention even in the absence of the memory supports commonly provided in fast mapping tasks. However, if word learning relies on domain-general memory processes, children should forget words over time, just as memory for other information is forgotten over time. Moreover, this forgetting should be rapid at first and slow with time, just as other information is forgotten in a similar manner (e.g., Rubin and Wenzel, 1996; Wixted, 2004).

General Method

We adopted our experimental method from Markson and Bloom’s (1997) novel word learning paradigm. In this task, learners were presented with a measuring game in which one of the novel objects is casually labeled with a novel word (i.e., “koba”). We chose this paradigm for three reasons. First, this study examined word mapping over extended periods of time, up to 1 month later. Second, this procedure has been used in several investigations of word learning (e.g., Waxman and Booth, 2000). Finally, this study’s procedure parallels both seminal research on fast mapping (e.g., Carey and Bartlett, 1978) and more recent research on word learning (e.g., Waxman and Booth, 2000; Behrend et al., 2001).


In each of the experiments, participants were presented with a measuring game in which they interacted with 10 items, shown in Figure 1. Six of the items were novel objects: a blue plastic tube with a ridged surface, a black sponge-tipped wooden stick, multi-colored trumpet pasta, a gray plastic grid, a brown rubber disk with an indented circle pattern, and a white wooden rectangle consisting of 10 bars connected by 2 longer bars. Children and the vast majority of adults did not spontaneously produce or map familiar words to these objects during the experiment. All of these objects were roughly equivalent in size. Four of the items were familiar objects: a pencil, a ruler, a string, and 10 pennies.

Figure 1. Stimuli used during the experiment. There were four known objects (ruler, pennies, string, and pencil) and six novel objects. Please note that objects are not scaled according to size.


At the beginning of the experiment, children were told they were going to play a game in which they would learn to measure things. Adults were told that they were going to play a game that was designed to teach children how to measure. Participants were not told that they would be participating in a study about word learning. The task was designed to be an incidental word learning task, to model real-world word learning, thus participants were not explicitly told that they would be learning new words.

There were two phases of the experiment: a learning phase and a testing phase. During the learning phase, the experimenter presented participants with six measuring activities. Each of these activities consisted of using one of the familiar objects to measure a novel object. For example, one of the measuring activities was using the ruler to measure the blue tube. The experimenter would bring out both objects simultaneously and say, “Let’s measure this toy with this.” The experimenter would then have the participant measure the object and say how long it was. After measuring the object, the experimenter would say, “Lets put these away now and play with some other things.” The experimenter would then introduce the next measuring activity until all of the measuring activities had been presented.

During one of the six activities, the novel object was casually labeled with a novel word (“koba”). For example, the experimenter would say, “Let’s measure the ‘koba’.” The activity in which this labeling event occurred was randomly assigned for each participant. In all other activities, both the novel and familiar object were not labeled. For example, all other objects were referred to as “this,” “it,” or “toy.” Thus, only one object during the entire learning phase was given a novel label.

The testing phase occurred either immediately, 1 week later, or 1 month later, according to the testing delay condition in which the participant was assigned. Participants were not given a reminder of the initial mapping before the test. The test consisted of the experimenter placing all 10 objects, in random placement order, on the table and asking participants to hand them the “koba.” The experimenter at test was a different person than during the learning phase in order to ensure that the experimenter was blind to which object had been labeled the “koba.”

Experiment 1


Fifty four 3-year-old children (M = 43.1 months, Range: 36–48 months, 29 girls) and 54 undergraduate students participated in this experiment. Adult participants received course credit for their participation in the study. Participants in Experiment 1 did not participate in any other experiment in this study. All participants were monolingual English speakers. Children and adults were randomly assigned to one of the three testing delay conditions: immediate, 1 week delay, and 1 month delay. Thus, there were 18 participants in each of the conditions of the experiment.


This experiment used a 2 (Age Group) × 3 (Testing Delay) design; both the age group (children and adults) and testing delay (immediate, 1 week delay, and 1 month delay) were between-subjects factors.


The procedure used in this experiment was the same as described in the Section “General Methods.” In this experiment, children and adults were not provided with the memory supports typically provided during fast mapping studies. The novel object used during the labeling activity was only casually labeled once (“Let’s measure the ‘koba’!”).

Results and Discussion

As can be seen by Figure 2, the percentage of children and adults accurately remembering the mapping of “koba” at test appeared to vary across time. A chi-square analysis confirmed that there were differences in the number of participants successfully and unsuccessfully mapping the label to the object at test across the three testing delay conditions for children, χ2 (2, N = 54) = 9.82, p = 0.0074, and adults, χ2 (2, N = 54) = 26.07, p < 0.001. At the immediate test, most children and nearly all adults were able to correctly map the novel word (“koba”) to the object that had been labeled during the learning phase. However, performance at the 1-week and 1 month test was significantly lower, suggesting forgetting occurred over time. Moreover, the pattern of performance across time appeared to be similar to that of forgetting curves (see Wixted, 2004, for a review) – forgetting followed a curvilinear pattern in which the rate of forgetting was the most rapid initially, but slowed over time.

Figure 2. Results of Experiment 1. The percentage of participants (children and adults) correctly identifying the “koba” at the immediate test, 1 week delayed test, and 1 month delayed test. Participants in this experiment did not receive the memory supports typically included in studies of fast mapping and word learning.

The results of this experiment suggest that children and adults forget word mappings across time. This is surprising given that previous research has suggested that learners have high retention for fast-mapped words. One possibility is that previous research may have concluded that children do not forget words across time because fast mapping paradigms commonly incorporate strong memory supports (see Horst and Samuelson, 2008, for a discussion). These memory supports may have prevented forgetting, thus giving the appearance of relatively consistent performance across time. We propose that word mapping and memory are intimately related processes. Thus, word mappings, just like other types of learned information, are forgotten over time.

In Experiment 2, we examined word mapping performance when children were provided with additional memory supports during learning. If children’s performance varied based upon the number of memory supports present during learning, this suggests that indeed word mapping relies on domain-general memory processes. Moreover, if word mapping performance remained consistent across time, in the presence of memory supports, this provides an explanation for why previous studies have demonstrated high retention over time (e.g., Markson and Bloom, 1997; Goodman et al., 1998; Waxman and Booth, 2000) whereas Experiment 1 and a few other studies have shown that children forget words across time (e.g., Horst and Samuelson, 2008). However, if children’s performance was not affected by varying numbers of memory supports during learning, this suggests that domain-general memory processes may not support word mapping performance across time. In this case, an alternate explanation is needed to explain why children have an enduring memory for words, but forget other information, and why there are conflicting results in the fast mapping literature.

Experiment 2

In this experiment, we sought to determine if varying the memory supports provided to children during learning would affect word mapping performance across time. Because participants forgot word mappings over time in Experiment 1, we proposed that domain-general memory mechanisms are involved in children’s long-term word learning. Consequently, we predicted that memory supports would alter the forgetting curves of word mappings.


One hundred sixty-two 3-year-old children (M = 42.8 months, Range: 36–48 months, 88 girls) participated in this experiment. Participants in Experiment 2 did not participate in any other experiment in this study. All participants were monolingual English speakers. Children were randomly assigned to one of the three memory support conditions: one memory support (saliency), two memory supports (saliency and repetition), or three memory supports (saliency, repetition, and generation); and one of the three testing delay conditions: immediate, 1 week delay, and 1 month delay. In total, there were 54 children in each of the three memory support conditions of this experiment, equally randomly assigned across the three testing delay conditions. Thus, there were a total of 18 participants in each condition of the experiment.


This experiment used a 3 (Memory Support) × 3 (Testing Delay) design; both the number of memory supports (one, two, and three memory supports during learning) and testing delay (immediate, 1 week delay, and 1 month delay) were between-subjects factors.


During the labeling activity, participants were provided with one, two, or three memory supports: saliency, repetition, and generation. The experimenter provided these supports in the following ways: For saliency, the experimenter made the target object more salient by telling the participant that it was special (for example, “This next toy is special.”) before it was labeled. For repetition, the experimenter casually labeled the target object repeatedly, for a total of six times (for example, “Let’s measure this ‘koba’.” How long is the ‘koba’? …). Finally, for generation, the experimenter asked the participant to generate the word for the target object (for example, “Can you say koba?”) immediately before putting the object away. Participants were provided with supports in this manner because this is how they are commonly provided in studies of children’s word learning (e.g., Woodward et al., 1994; Markson and Bloom, 1997; Waxman and Booth, 2000; Medina et al., 2011). The rest of the procedure was the same as described in the Section “General Methods.”

Results and Discussion

As can been seen in Figure 3, the percentage of children accurately remembering the mapping of “koba” at test appeared to vary over time and across the different memory support conditions. We first examined whether children within each memory support condition had varied performance over time. A chi-square analysis confirmed that there were differences in the number of participants successfully and unsuccessfully mapping the label to the object across the three testing delays in the no memory support condition, χ2 (2, N = 54) = 9.82, p = 0.0074 (from Experiment 1), the one memory support condition, χ2 (2, N = 54) = 7.75, p = 0.0208, and the two memory supports condition, χ2 (2, N = 54) = 7.30, p = 0.0260. There was not a significant difference across the three testing delays in the three memory support condition, χ2 (2, N = 54) = 1.20, p = 0.5488. Thus, only children in the condition with the most memory supports (the three memory support condition) had high retention over time, without significant forgetting. However, children in all of the other memory support conditions demonstrated forgetting over time.

Figure 3. Results of Experiment 2. The percentage of participants (children) correctly identifying the “koba” at the immediate test, 1 week delayed test, and 1 month delayed test, for four conditions of learning: no memory supports (from Experiment 1), one memory support (Experiment 2), two memory supports (Experiment 2), and three memory supports (Experiment 2).

We then examined whether there would be differences in the pattern of forgetting across the four memory support conditions. A chi-square analysis confirmed that there was a difference in the number of participants successfully and unsuccessfully mapping the label to the object across the four memory support conditions at the 1-month delayed test, χ2 (3, N = 72) = 8.52, p = 0.0364. However, there were not significant differences at the immediate test, χ2 (3, N = 72) = 0.79, p = 0.8519, and the 1-week delayed test, χ2 (3, N = 72) = 4.68, p = 0.1968. This suggests that, although the effects of the different memory supports were not apparent at the immediate and 1 week delayed test, the memory supports did affect long-term performance at the 1-month test. Because there were differences at the 1-month delayed test, there were also differences in the pattern of forgetting over time. Thus, these results suggest that small changes in an experimental paradigm can alter the manner in which word mappings are remembered and forgotten over time.

The results of Experiment 2 also provide an explanation for why previous studies have suggested that children have high retention of word mappings (e.g., Markson and Bloom, 1997; Goodman et al., 1998; Waxman and Booth, 2000). In studies of fast mapping, experiments are often designed so that they include several memory supports. However, in this study, when these memory supports were removed, children rapidly forgot words over time. This work suggests that, instead of having high retention of words across time, children forget words over time. In the Section “General Discussion,” we outline how rapid forgetting may be a critical mechanism underlying children’s long-term word learning.

General Discussion

For decades, children’s ability to quickly map and retain a new word has been described as a remarkable characteristic of language learning and development (e.g., Carey and Bartlett, 1978; Heibeck and Markman, 1987; Goodman et al., 1998; Waxman and Booth, 2000; Behrend et al., 2001). The experiments in this study confirm children’s remarkable mapping abilities – the majority of children readily mapped a novel word to a novel object at an immediate test. However, these experiments confirm the findings from recent investigations of fast mapping (e.g., Horst and Samuelson, 2008; Horst et al., 2010; Friedrich and Friederici, 2011; Kucker and Samuelson, 2011) – rather than having high retention of words, children and adults forgot words over time. Indeed, participants’ retention of word mappings followed a curvilinear pattern, consistent with the manner in which information is forgotten in memory tasks (e.g., Ebbinghaus, 1964; Anderson and Schooler, 1991; Rubin and Wenzel, 1996; White, 2001; Wixted, 2004).

We contextualize our discussion of these findings in terms of the role of forgetting in word learning. Intuitively, forgetting would seem detrimental to word learning because children would be unable to retrieve word mappings after the initial word learning event. However, we outline how forgetting may be a powerful mechanism supporting extended mapping and long-term word learning – forgetting may support both memory for specific word-to-world mappings and the ability to abstract meaning and generalize words to new experiences.

Forgetting Promotes Extended Mapping: Memory for Word Mappings

Forgetting is the most ubiquitous characteristic of human memory (e.g., Rubin and Wenzel, 1996; Wixted, 2004) – after acquiring information, learners begin to forget this information according to a curvilinear pattern over time, toward a theoretical asymptote of zero. Intuitively, forgetting would seem to deter memory because it makes retrieving prior learning more difficult. However, over 100 years of memory research (starting with Ebbinghaus, 1964) have outlined how forgetting is essential for the efficiency and adaptive functioning of memory (see Delaney et al., 2010; Storm, 2011; for recent reviews).

For example, according to study-phase retrieval theories of human memory (see Delaney et al., 2010, for a review; Hintzman and Block, 1973; Johnston and Uhl, 1976; Thios and D’Agostino, 1976), forgetting information in between learning events is critical for the efficiency of memory. Information that is important to remember will likely be presented at a later point in time. Thus, when learners are re-presented with this information, it will be retrieved and get reactivated in memory. The process of retrieving and reactivating a memory results in a slowed rate of future forgetting for this information. Conversely, less important information is not likely to be re-presented to the learner and thus is not retrieved and/or reactivated in the same manner as important information. Consequently, less important information is forgotten at a faster rate than more important information. The end result of these processes is efficiency in memory retrieval – information that is important for us to remember is easily retrieved.

Study-phase retrieval theories may be able to account for how word mappings are retained across time. Although mappings are forgotten in a curvilinear fashion, children are likely to be re-presented with word mappings at later points in time. Upon subsequent presentations, the mapping(s) will get reactivated in memory. This reactivation slows the rate of future forgetting and, across many presentations, makes word mappings easily retrieved.

This account is consistent with current theories on how word mappings are determined across ambiguous and complex learning situations, such as in cross-situational word learning (e.g., Yu and Smith, 2007; Smith and Yu, 2008). The results of cross-situational word learning research suggest that learners will map linguistic labels to objects that are co-presented at the highest frequency. Interestingly, another bi-product of high co-occurrence mappings is more reactivation in memory than low co-occurrence mappings. Indeed, the processes underlying how word mappings are determined across learning events may engender memory processes that promote the retention of this information (see Vlach and Sandhofer, 2011, for an example).

Forgetting Promotes Extended Mapping: Generalization of Words

The process of extended mapping includes more than just the retention of word mappings – extended mapping also includes the development of the initial representation (Carey and Bartlett, 1978). One important component of extended mapping is the ability to accurately extend and/or generalize a word to a novel referent (e.g., Carey and Bartlett, 1978; Waxman and Booth, 2000; Behrend et al., 2001; Jaswal and Markman, 2003; Wilkinson and Mazzitelli, 2003). Recently, research on forgetting has been contextualized in generalization tasks (e.g., Kornell and Bjork, 2008; Vlach et al., 2008, 2012; Kornell et al., 2010). Generalization tasks differ from memory tasks in that, instead of being asked to recall a specific piece of information from memory, learners are required to abstract across variable learning experiences in order to generalize information to a new situation. This body of work has revealed that providing learners the opportunity to forget information in between learning events supports the acquisition and generalization of knowledge.

One domain in which forgetting has been identified to be particularly important is children’s generalization of words and categories (e.g., Vlach et al., 2008, 2012). As an example, one study (Vlach et al., 2008) presented children with a novel noun generalization task on two learning schedules, massed and spaced. In this task, children were presented with exemplars of a novel object category which were labeled with a common novel word (e.g., “blicket”). In the massed presentation schedule, category exemplars were presented in immediate succession (i.e., one right after the other). In the spaced presentation schedule, category exemplars were distributed in time by 30 s (i.e., 30 s of time in between each presentation). The 30-s interval in the spaced schedule provided learners the opportunity to forget information in between learning events. Results of the study revealed that, at a 3-min delayed generalization test, children had higher performance on the test for categories presented on a spaced schedule than categories presented on a massed schedule. This finding suggests that providing children the opportunity to forget information during learning promoted their ability to generalize words to novel category exemplars.

Research has suggested that forgetting promotes word learning because it supports the abstraction, and subsequent generalization, of information (e.g., Vlach et al., 2008, 2012). By this account (an extension of study-phase retrieval theory; e.g., Delaney et al., 2010), forgetting promotes abstraction by supporting the memory of relevant features of a category and deterring the memory of irrelevant features of a category. Relevant features of a category are likely to be present at multiple learning events, thus reactivated in memory. This reactivation not only increases the retrieval strength for relevant features, but slows the future forgetting rate of the relevant features. On the other hand, irrelevant features are less likely to be present at multiple learning events, thus not being reactivated in memory. Because irrelevant features are not reactivated, they continue to be forgotten at a faster rate than relevant features. Consequently, when learners are required to generalize information at a future point in time, they will successfully recall more relevant features than irrelevant features, promoting more successful generalization. Indeed, extended mapping includes both successful retention and generalization and forgetting may be simultaneously supporting both processes.

Future research: Word Learning and Memory

This work contributes to a growing body of research demonstrating the intimate relationship between word learning and memory (e.g., Samuelson and Smith, 1998; Smith, 2002; Sandhofer and Doumas, 2008; Vlach et al., 2008; McGregor et al., 2009). The current study highlights a powerful memory process underlying word mapping – forgetting – and is the first to demonstrate that children’s retention of word mappings follow the same pattern as forgetting functions. It is important to build a mechanistic model for how words are learned and retained rather than just assume all mappings are retained for extended periods of time (see Mayor and Plunkett, 2010; for a model which demonstrates the importance of discarded mappings). Thus, future work should continue to investigate the role of memory processes involved in children’s word learning.

Research on fast mapping may also benefit from examining the short-term memory processes involved in word mapping. Short-term memory processes may be mediating and/or moderating children’s use of environmental cues that guide the in-the-moment mapping of a word to an object. Indeed, discovering the memory processes supporting both the initial mapping and retention of words is likely to elucidate the mechanisms of children’s word learning over time and across development.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


We thank the three reviewers for their feedback on this paper. We also thank the undergraduate research assistants of the Language and Cognitive Development Lab for their contribution to this project. Furthermore, we appreciate all of the help from the preschool staff, parents, and children that participated in this study. The research in this paper was supported by NICHD grant R03 HD064909-01.


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Keywords: word learning, fast mapping, memory and learning, long-term memory, forgetting, forgetting curves

Citation: Vlach HA and Sandhofer CM (2012) Fast mapping across time: memory processes support children’s retention of learned words. Front. Psychology3:46. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00046

Received: 13 October 2011; Accepted: 08 February 2012;
Published online: 27 February 2012.

Copyright: © 2012 Vlach and Sandhofer. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial License, which permits non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited.

*Correspondence: Haley A. Vlach, Department of Psychology, University of California Los Angeles, 1285 Franz Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA. e-mail:

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Vocabulary Development and Why Infercabulary Works

parent reading

Vocabulary development is most widely known to occur through reading and oral language. Parents are frequently advised to read to their children and to talk to their children. This relates specifically to two common processes called fast mapping and extended mapping.

Fast mapping is a rapid process by which children hear a word and connect it with a general understanding of the concept (Carey & Bartlett, 1978). This often occurs when talking to a child about their immediate environment and labeling the objects in this environment. Fast mapping however is limited to these specific contexts or environments.

Multiple exposures to the word in varying contexts are needed to provide an increased depth and understanding of the vocabulary world. This process of refining one’s understanding of a vocabulary word is called extending mapping. Overall, fast mapping contributes to the variety of vocabulary words an individual learns while extended mapping contributes to the depth and understanding of those words acquired.

An important aspect that helps with these mapping processes is context clues. Context clues are hints that allow a person to infer what the meaning of an unknown word may be. For example: Handle this glass vase carefully because it is fragile. Context clues could include “glass” and “carefully.” These context clues however are language based which can be difficult for our students who already struggle with speech and language skills. Therefore, InferCabulary Pro bases its context clues and inferencing on visual input rather than language. By allowing kids to infer meaning based on visual examples and a variety of contexts the language aspect is no longer a hindrance to our students learning new vocabulary.

Post by Guest Blogger – Kellie Ileto, M.A., SLP works as a speech language pathologist in Montgomery County Public Schools with children who are deaf/hard of hearing. She recently graduated from George Washington University where she worked in a Cochlear Implant Research Lab and completed her Masters thesis focusing on pragmatic language in children with autism.

Fast mapping by Mark

Word learning in children: an examination of fast mapping

Children may be able to gain at least partial information about the meaning of a word from how it is used in a sentence, what words it is contrasted with, as well as other factors. This strategy, known as fast mapping, may allow the child to quickly hypothesize about the meaning of a word. It is not yet known whether this strategy is available to children in semantic domains other than color. In the first study, 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds were introduced to a novel color, shape, or texture word by contrasting the new term with a well-known word from that domain. They were then tested for their ability to produce and comprehend the new term and for whether they knew what semantic domain the word referred to. The results show that even 2-year-old children can quickly narrow down the meaning of a word in each of the semantic domains examined, although children learned more about shape terms than color or texture words. A second study explored the effects of several variables on children's ability to infer the meaning of a new term. One finding of this study was that if the context is compelling, children can figure out the meaning of a new word even without hearing an explicit linguistic contrast.


Mapping fast

The Concept of Fast Mapping in Psychology Explained With Examples

The Concept of Fast Mapping in Psychology Explained With Examples

In cognitive psychology, fast mapping refers to the ability of children to acquire new words and concepts with minimal exposure to them. This PsycholoGenie article illustrates the concept of fast mapping with the help of some examples.

Did You Know?

Kid blowing bubbles on a friend

After the age of two, kids learn about 9 new words every day.

Parents often try to introduce babies to different colors, forms, shapes, smells, tastes, or any such experiences that would enrich their sensory learning. Hearing new words or a piece of music, or random sounds (like a dog’s bark) adds to the baby’s experiences. But how do the little ones learn words? How do they know the meanings of different words of a language.

Of course, they don’t even know that it is a language. Nonetheless, they get their words correct, right from when they are barely two years old. This learning happens as a very complex and continuous cognitive process. The part of the ‘how’ of this process is answered by the concept of fast mapping.

What is Fast Mapping?

Baby and mom playing

The ability of toddlers to acquire and retain new words, or concepts with a minimal exposure, is known as fast mapping.

The term was coined by researchers Susan Carey and Elsa Bartlett in 1978. It is also understood to be an initial process, where certain kinds of placeholder meanings are established for words. Since mapping requires reception and retention, remembering word-meaning associations is an organized effort of the mind. Thus, for the purpose of retention of the learned words, the mind puts them into separate compartments, which are the placeholders.

Assuming that children already have learned or acquired the meanings of a few words, they grasp and retain further vocabulary due to several cognitive processes. One of them is known to be the process of fast mapping, primarily due to the sheer speed with which they grasp new words. Extended mapping, on the contrary, is the process of acquiring the complete understanding of the word or concept, which naturally happens over a longer time period. Fast mapping helps in explaining to some extent the prodigious rate at which kids gain vocabulary.

It is this ability of the young mind to acquire a word, or its meaning of some sorts, and retain it even after time has passed. This time period is usually taken to be a week or more. It is seen to be a very important step in the development of linguistic abilities of children, especially toddlers. Various further researches have been conducted on this concept to establish a detailed analysis of the cognitive process behind language learning or overall building of vocabulary.

Examples of Fast Mapping

1. Clarey and Bartlett’s ‘Chromium’ Study: A preschool teacher pointed at the colored trays and asked the kids, “Bring me the chromium tray, not the blue one, the chromium one.” The kids could identify the chromium (olive green) colored tray in contrast to the other. Later, they were tested after a week during a comprehension test, and were reminded briefly of the earlier mapping. It showed that a majority of them had retained the association of ‘chromium’ with the color of olive green.

This experiment gave a good result, despite the incomplete and indirect meanings of the word presented to the students. Here, students identifying chromium as a ‘color word’ was not important. Rather, the learning was that, children could create a new entry of a word and retain its memory, despite such less exposure to the word.

2. Object Labeling Test: There have been experiments where the fast mapping abilities of toddlers were judged on the basis of labeling objects. The labels mostly included familiar objects. They were, however, asked to label certain new and unknown objects. Children can label unknown objects in contrast to the ones they are familiar with. If a ruler, paper, and pair of scissors form the familiar objects, and objects like glark, pizer, or dax are some unknown, differently shaped objects, keeping a pair of familiar and unfamiliar objects (paper and glark) in front of them, helps them label the new object.

3. Using Fast Mapped Word: Consider that a two-year old overheard a word when the parents were talking about an object they were pointing at. If that word is new, or unknown, the kid’s mind catches it fast, as compared to other known words heard. The kid has heard the word only once, but within a day or two, he uses that word in reference to that object. The parents feel amazed, but this is an example of fast mapping.

Child Development

As is said, the first few years in life is the period when the child has the maximum grasping power and ability to learn. That is probably the reason why 2 or 3 year olds are easily seen to interpret meanings of novel words or objects based on context, using all their available resources.

Language Acquisition

Learning the mother tongue happens through fun and play, as it is learned the natural way. This acquisition of language, use of words for certain objects, expressions, or in a sentence is a slow and steady accumulation of correct word-meaning associations. Fast mapping, especially during early childhood plays a very crucial role in building new set of vocabulary, with the help of already existing words. Comparing and contrasting old and new words, objects, and concepts guides this process.

There are limitations to the fast mapping approach too. For example, children cannot grasp or retain new words if they hear many unknown words at once. Also, the success of word learning experiments depend upon many factors, such as time constraint, number of novel words kids are exposed to at once, the time span they are able to retain the acquired words, etc.

On this background, extended or slow mapping forms a better ground for the learning of words. It occurs as a gradual process, leading to the cognition of new concepts, thus enabling formation of stronger and more accurate word-meaning associations. Also, the paper published by Carey and Bartlett back in 1978 had focused on extended mapping.

Fast Mapping Presentation by Professor Andreas Rohde

Fast mapping

In cognitive psychology, fast mapping is the term used for the hypothesized mental process whereby a new concept is learned (or a new hypothesis formed) based only on minimal exposure to a given unit of information (e.g., one exposure to a word in an informative context where its referent is present). Fast mapping is thought by some researchers to be particularly important during language acquisition in young children, and may serve (at least in part) to explain the prodigious rate at which children gain vocabulary. In order to successfully use the fast mapping process, a child must possess the ability to use "referent selection" and "referent retention" of a novel word. There is evidence that this can be done by children as young as two years old, even with the constraints of minimal time and several distractors.[1] Previous research in fast mapping has also shown that children are able to retain a newly learned word for a substantial amount of time after they are subjected to the word for the first time (Carey and Bartlett, 1978). Further research by Markson and Bloom (1997), showed that children can remember a novel word a week after it was presented to them even with only one exposure to the novel word. While children have also displayed the ability to have equal recall for other types of information, such as novel facts, their ability to extend the information seems to be unique to novel words. This suggests that fast mapping is a specified mechanism for word learning.[2] The process was first formally articulated and the term 'fast mapping' coined Susan Carey and Elsa Bartlett in 1978.[3]

Evidence against[edit]

Today, there is evidence to suggest that children do not learn words through 'fast mapping' but rather learn probabilistic, predictive relationships between objects and sounds that develop over time. Evidence for this comes, for example, from children's struggles to understand color words: although infants can distinguish between basic color categories,[4] many sighted children use color words in the same way that blind children do up until the fourth year.[5] Typically, words such as "blue" and "yellow" appear in their vocabularies and they produce them in appropriate places in speech, but their application of individual color terms is haphazard and interchangeable. If shown a blue cup and asked its color, typical three-year-olds seem as likely to answer "red" as "blue." These difficulties persist up until around age four, even after hundreds of explicit training trials.[6] The inability for children to understand color stems from the cognitive process of whole object constraint. Whole object constraint is the idea that a child will understand that a novel word represents the entirety of that object. Then, if the child is presented with further novel words, they attach inferred meanings to the object. However, color is the last attribute to be considered because it explains the least about the object itself. Children's behavior clearly indicates that they have knowledge of these words, but this knowledge is far from complete; rather it appears to be predictive, as opposed to all-or-none.

Alternate theories[edit]

An alternate theory of deriving the meaning of newly learned words by young children during language acquisition stems from John Locke's "associative proposal theory". Compared to the "intentional proposal theory", associative proposal theory refers to the deduction of meaning by comparing the novel object to environmental stimuli. A study conducted by Yu & Ballard (2007), introduced cross-situational learning,[7] a method based on Locke's theory. Cross-situtational learning theory is a mechanism in which the child learns meaning of words over multiple exposures in varying contexts in an attempt to eliminate uncertainty of the word's true meaning on an exposure-by-exposure basis.[8]

On the other hand, more recent studies[9] suggest that some amount of fast mapping does take place, questioning the validity of previous laboratory studies that aim to show that probabilistic learning does occur. A critique to the theory of fast mapping is how can children connect the meaning of the novel word with the novel word after just one exposure? For example, when showing a child a blue ball and saying the word "blue" how does the child know that the word blue explains the color of the ball, not the size, or shape? If children learn words by fast mapping, then they must use inductive reasoning to understand the meaning associated with the novel word. A popular theory to explain this inductive reasoning is that children apply word-learning constraints to the situation where a novel word is introduced. There are speculations as to why this is; Markman and Wachtel (1988) conducted a study that helps explain the possible underlying principles of fast mapping. They claim children adhere to the theories of whole-object bias, the assumption that a novel label refers to the entire object rather than its parts, color, substance or other properties, and mutual exclusivity bias, the assumption that only one label applies to each object.[10] In their experiment, children were presented with an object that they either were familiar with or was presented with a whole object term. Markman and Watchel concluded that the mere juxtaposition between familiar and novel terms may assist in part term acquisition. In other words, children will put constraints on themselves and assume the novel term refers to the whole object in view rather than to its parts.[11] There have been six lexical constraints proposed (reference, extendibility, object scope, categorical scope, novel name, conventionality) that guide a child's learning of a novel word.[11] When learning a new word children apply these constraints. However, this purposed method of constraints is not flawless. If children use these constraints there are many words that children will never learn such as actions, attributes, and parts. Studies have found that both toddlers and adults were more likely to categorize an object by its shape than its size or color.[12]

Cross-situational learning versus propose but verify[edit]

The next question in fast mapping theory is how exactly is the meaning of the novel word learned? An experiment performed in October 2012 by the Department of Psychology by University of Pennsylvania,[12] researchers attempted to determine if fast mapping occurs via cross-situational learning or by another method, "Propose but verify". In cross-situational learning, listeners hear a novel word and store multiple conjectures of what the word could mean based on its situational context. Then after multiple exposures the listener is able to target the meaning of the word by ruling out conjectures. In propose but verify, the learner makes a single conjecture about the meaning of the word after hearing the word used in context. The learner then carries that conjecture forward to be reevaluated and modified for consistency when the word is used again. The results of the experiment seems to support that propose but verify is the way by which learners fast map new words.[12]


There is also controversy over whether words learned by fast mapping are retained or forgotten. Previous research has found that generally, children retain a newly learned word for a period of time after learning. In the aforementioned Carey and Bartlett study (1978), children who were taught the word "chromium" were found to keep the new lexical entry in working memory for several days, illustrating a process of gradual lexical alignment known as "extended mapping."[13] Another study, performed by Markson and Bloom (1997), showed that children remembered words up to 1 month after the study was conducted. However, more recent studies have shown that words learned by fast mapping tend to be forgotten over time. In a study conducted by Vlach and Sandhofer (2012), memory supports, which had been included in previous studies, were removed. This removal appeared to result in a low retention of words over time. This is a possible explanation for why previous studies showed high retention of words learned by fast mapping.[14]: 46 

Some researchers are concerned that experiments testing for fast mapping are produced in artificial settings. They feel that fast mapping doesn't occur as often in more real life, natural situations. They believe that testing for fast mapping should focus more on the actual understanding of a word instead of just its reproduction. For some, testing to see if the child can use the new word in a different situation constitutes true knowledge of a word, rather than simply identifying the new word.[11]

Variables affecting an individual's fast mapping ability[edit]


When learning novel words, it is believed that early exposure to multiple linguistic systems facilitates the acquisition of new words later in life. This effect was referred to by Kaushanskaya and Marian (2009) as the bilingual advantage.[15] That being said, a bilingual individual's ability to fast map can vary greatly throughout their life.

During the language acquisition process, a child may require a greater amount of time to determine a correct referent than a child who is a monolingual speaker.[16] By the time a bilingual child is of school age, they perform equally on naming tasks when compared to monolingual children.[17] By the age of adulthood, bilingual individuals have acquired word-learning strategies believed to be of assistance on fast mapping tasks.[18] One example is speech practice, a strategy where the participant listens and reproduces the word in order to assist in remembering and decrease the likelihood of forgetting .[19] Bilingualism can increase an individual's cognitive abilities and contribute to their success in fast mapping words, even when they are using a nonnative language.[19]

Socioeconomic status[edit]

Children growing up in a low-socioeconomic status environment receive less attention than those in high-socioeconomic status environments. As a result, these children may be exposed to fewer words and therefore their language development may suffer.[20] On norm-references vocabulary tests, children from low- socioeconomic homes tend to score lower than same-age children from a high-socioeconomic environment. However, when examining their fast mapping abilities there were no significant differences observed in their ability to learn and remember novel words.[21] Children from low SES families were able to use multiple sources of information in order to fast map novel words. When working with children from low SES homes, providing a context of the word that attributes meaning, is a linguistic strategy that can benefit the child's word knowledge development.[22]

Face-to-face interaction[edit]

Three learning supports that have been proven to help with the fast mapping of words are saliency, repetition and generation of information.[14] The amount of face-to-face interaction a child has with their parent affects his or her ability to fast map novel words. Interaction with a parent leads to greater exposure to words in different contexts, which in turn promotes language acquisition. Face to face interaction cannot be replaced by educational shows because although repetition is used, children do not receive the same level of correction or trial and error from simply watching.[23] When a child is asked to generate the word it promotes the transition to long-term memory to a larger extent.[24]

Evidence of fast mapping in other animals[edit]

It appears that fast mapping is not only limited to humans, but can occur in dogs as well.

The first example of fast mapping in dogs was published in 2004. In it, a dog named Rico was able to learn the labels of over 200 various items. He was also able to identify novel objects simply by exclusion learning. Exclusion learning occurs when one learns the name of a novel object because one is already familiar with the names of other objects belonging to the same group. The researchers, who conducted the experiment, mention the possibility that a language acquisition device specific to humans does not control fast mapping. They believe that fast mapping is possibly directed by simple memory mechanisms.[25]

In 2010, a second example was published. This time, a dog named Chaser demonstrated, in a controlled research environment, that she had learned over 1000 object names. She also demonstrated that she could attribute these objects to named categories through fast mapping inferential reasoning.[26] It's important to note that, at the time of publication, Chaser was still learning object names at the same pace as before. Thus, her 1000 words, or lexicals, should not be regarded as an upper limit, but a benchmark. While there are many components of language that were not demonstrated in this study, the 1000 word benchmark is remarkable because many studies on language learning correlate a 1000 lexical vocabulary with, roughly, 75% spoken language comprehension.[27][28][29]

Another study on Chaser was published in 2013. In this study, Chaser demonstrated flexible understanding of simple sentences. In these sentences, syntax was altered in various contexts to prove she had not just memorized full phrases or inferred the expectation through gestures from her evaluators.[30] Discovering this skill in a dog is noteworthy on its own, but verb meaning can be fast mapped through syntax.[31] This creates questions about what parts of speech dogs could infer, as previous studies focused on nouns. These findings create further questions about the fast mapping abilities of dogs when viewed in light of a study published in Science in 2016 that proved dogs process lexical and intonational cues separately.[32] That is, they respond to both tone and word meaning.[33]

However, excitement about the fast-mapping skills of dogs should be tempered. Research in humans has found fast-mapping abilities and vocabulary size are not correlated in unenriched environments. Research has determined that language exposure alone is not enough to develop vocabulary through fast-mapping. Instead, the learner needs to be an active participant in communications to convert fast-mapping abilities into vocabulary.[21][22][23]

It is not commonplace to communicate with dogs, nor any non-primate animal, in a productive fashion as they are non-verbal.[34][35] As such, Chaser's vocabulary and sentence comprehension is attributed to Dr. Pilley's rigorous methodology.[30]

In the deaf population[edit]

A study by Lederberg et al., was performed to determine if deaf and hard of hearing children fast map to learn novel words. In the study, when the novel word was introduced, the word was both spoken and signed. Then the children were asked to identify the referent object and even extend the novel word to identify a similar object. The results of the study indicated that deaf and hard of hearing children do perform fast mapping to learn novel words. However, compared to children with normal hearing (aging toddlers to 5 years old) the deaf and hard of hearing children did not fast map as accurately and successfully. The results showed a slight delay which disappeared as the children were a maximum of 5 years old. The conclusion that was drawn from the study is that the ability to fast map has a relationship to the size of the lexicon. The children with normal hearing had a larger lexicon and therefore were able to more accurately fast map compared to deaf and hard of hearing children who did not have as large of a lexicon. It is by around age 5 that deaf and hard of hearing children have a similar size lexicon to 5 year old children of normal hearing. This evidence supports the idea that fast mapping requires inductive reasoning so the larger the lexicon (number of known words) the easier it is for the child to reason out the accurate meaning for the novel word.[36]

In the area of cochlear implants (CIs), there are variegated opinions on whether cochlear implants impact a child's ability to become a more successful fast mapper. In 2000, a study by Kirk, Myomoto, and others determined that there was a general correlation between the age of Cochlear Implant implementation and improved lexical skills (e.g. fast mapping and other vocabulary growth skills). They believed that children given implants prior to two years of age yielded higher success rates than older children between five and seven years of age. With that said, researchers at the University of Iowa wish to amend that very generalization. In 2013, "Word Learning Processes in Children with Cochlear Implants" by Elizabeth Walker and others indicated that although there may be a some levels of increased vocabulary acquisition in CI individuals, many post-implantees generally were slower developers of his/her own lexicon. Walker bases her claims on another research study in 2007 (Tomblin et al.) One of the purposes of this study was to note a CI child's ability to comprehend and retain novel words with related referents. When compared with non-deaf children, the CI children had lower success scores in retention. This finding was based on scorings obtained from their test: from 0 to 6 (0 the worst, 6 the best), CI children averaged a score around a 2.0 whereas non-deaf children scored higher (roughly 3.86).[37]

In individuals with ADHD[edit]

An experiment was performed to assess fast mapping in adults with typical language abilities, disorders of spoken/written language (hDSWL), and adults with hDSWL and ADHD. The conclusion draws from the experiment revealed that adults with ADHD were the least accurate at "mapping semantic features and slower to respond to lexical labels." The article reasoned that the tasks of fast mapping requires high attentional demand and so "a lapse in attention could lead to diminished encoding of the new information."[38]

In individuals with language deficits[edit]

Fast mapping in individuals with aphasia has gained research attention due to its effect on speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Research done by Blumstein makes an important distinction between those with Broca's aphasia, who are limited in physical speech, as compared to those with Wernicke's aphasia, who cannot link words with meaning. In Broca's aphasia, Blumstein found that whereas individuals with Wernicke's aphasia performed at the same level as the normal control group, those with Broca's aphasia showed slower reaction times for word presentations after reduced voice onset time stimuli.[39] In short, when stimuli were acoustically altered, individuals with Broca's aphasia experienced difficulty recognizing the novel stimuli upon second presentation. Bloomstein's findings reinforce the crucial difference between one's ability to retain novel stimuli versus the ability to express novel stimuli. Because individuals with Wernicke's aphasia are only limited in their understanding of semantic meaning, it makes sense that the participant's novel stimulus recall would not be affected. On the other hand, those with Broca's aphasia lack the ability to produce speech, in effect hindering their ability to recall novel stimuli. Although individuals with Broca's aphasia are limited in their speech production, it is not clear whether they simply cannot formulate the physical speech or if they actually did not process the stimuli.

Research has also been done investigating fast mapping abilities in children with language deficits. One study done by Dollaghan compared children with normal language to those with expressive syntactic deficits, a type of specific language impairment characterized by simplified speech. The study found that normal and language impaired children did not differ in their ability to connect the novel word to referent or to comprehend the novel word after a single exposure. The only difference was that the language-impaired children were less successful in their production of the novel word.[40] This implies that expressive language deficits are unrelated to the ability to connect word and referent in a single exposure. The problem for children with those deficits arises only when trying to convert that mental representation into verbal speech.

In individuals with intellectual disabilities[edit]

A few researchers looked at fast mapping abilities in boys with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), also referred to as autism spectrum, and boys with fragile X syndrome (FXS). The experimental procedure consisted of a presentation phase where two objects were presented, one of which was a novel object with a nonsense word name. This was followed by a comprehension testing phase, which assessed the boys' ability to remember and correctly select the novel objects. Even though all groups in the study had fast mapping performances above chance levels, in comparison to boys showing typical development, those with ASD and FXS demonstrated much more difficulty in comprehending and remembering names assigned to the novel objects. The authors concluded that initial processes involved in associative learning, such as fast mapping, are hindered in boys with FXS and ASD.[41]

Computational models[edit]

Research in artificial intelligence and machine learning to reproduce computationally this ability, termed one-shot learning. This is pursued to reduce the learning curve, as other models like reinforcement learning need thousand of exposures to a situation to learn it.


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