How young children integrate information sources to infer the meaning of words

Research output: Journal contributionsJournal articlesResearchpeer-review


  • Manuel Bohn
  • Michael Henry Tessler
  • Megan Merrick
  • Michael C. Frank

Before formal education begins, children typically acquire a vocabulary of thousands of words. This learning process requires the use of many different information sources in their social environment, including their current state of knowledge and the context in which they hear words used. How is this information integrated? We specify a developmental model according to which children consider information sources in an age-specific way and integrate them via Bayesian inference. This model accurately predicted 2–5-year-old children’s word learning across a range of experimental conditions in which they had to integrate three information sources. Model comparison suggests that the central locus of development is an increased sensitivity to individual information sources, rather than changes in integration ability. This work presents a developmental theory of information integration during language learning and illustrates how formal models can be used to make a quantitative test of the predictive and explanatory power of competing theories.

Original languageEnglish
JournalNature Human Behaviour
Issue number8
Pages (from-to)1046-1054
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 01.08.2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
M.B. received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 749229. M.H.T. was funded by the National Science Foundation SBE Postdoctoral Research Fellowship grant no. 1911790. M.C.F. was supported by a Jacobs Foundation Advanced Research Fellowship and the Zhou Fund for Language and Cognition. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).