New Preprint: Effect of Contextual Diversity on Word Learning

A new preprint By Rachael Hulme, Anisha Begum, Kate Nation and Jenni Rodd looks at how contextual diversity affects early stages of word learning.

Diversity of narrative context disrupts the early stage of learning the meanings of novel words

There’s an important distinction between ‘situational diversity’ (i.e. the context in which words occur) and ‘heterogeneity’ (i.e. polysemy/diversity in words’ meanings). These typically co-occur in natural language, so we wanted to tease contextual diversity apart from polysemy.

Adults learned new words and their meanings by reading paragraphs with either five different narrative contexts or a single coherent narrative context. We controlled the semantic features of word meanings across conditions to avoid influences from polysemy.

Diversity of narrative context did not affect word-form learning but disrupted learning of word meanings – more semantic features were correctly recalled for words learned in a single coherent narrative context.

So in the early stages of learning meanings of new words, learning is boosted by anchoring them to a single coherent narrative discourse. The temporary representations that are built to support discourse comprehension may play an important role in supporting word learning.

The expt was preregistered, and materials, data & analysis code are available via OSF:

Here’s a poster summary of this research:

New Paper: The Interaction between the two Languages of Bilingual Speakers

This priming study was led by Dr Eva Poort, looking at how very recent experience with words (including cognates and interlingual homographs) in the L2 of Dutch-English bilinguals influenced their processing of related words in their L1.

Poort, E. D, & Rodd, J. M. (2022). Cross-lingual priming of cognates and interlingual homographs from L2 to L1. Glossa Psycholinguistics, 1(1).

This work follows up earlier work by Eva on this topic:

Poort, E.D., Rodd, J.M. (2019). Towards a distributed connectionist account of cognates and interlingual homographs: evidence from semantic relatedness tasks. PeerJ. 7:e6725

Poort, E. D., & Rodd, J. M. (2017). The cognate facilitation effect in bilingual lexical decision is influenced by stimulus list composition. Acta Psychologica, 180, 52-63.

Poort, E. D., Warren, J. E.,& Rodd, J. M. (2016). Recent experience with cognates and interlingual homographs in one language affects subsequent processing in another language. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 19 (1), 206-212.

New Paper: Word-meaning priming extends beyond homonyms

This paper, which was led by Adam Curtis (Univeristy of York) as part of an ESRC grant awarded to Prof Gareth Gaskell (York) and Prof Jenni Rodd (UCL) has been published in Cognition and can be accessed here.

In three pre-registered experiments, participants were exposed to non-homonym targets (e.g., “balloon”) in sentences that biased interpretation towards a specific aspect of the word’s meaning (e.g., balloon‑helium vs. balloon-float). After a ~ 10–30 min delay access to the primed aspect of the word’s meaning was enhanced.

These findings show that similar ‘word-meaning priming’ effects, that had previously only been shown for homonyms (e.g., bark-dog vs bark-tree) are far more general than previously thought, and sugest that episodic sentence memory plays a key role in comprehension.

Word Lab visit Experimental Psychology Society

In March 2022 most of the lab travelled to Keele University for the meeting of the Experimental Psychology Society. This was our first in-person conference since the start of COVID. It was really lovely to see so many familiar faces and of course to get to know some new ones.

Rebecca Norman presented her work on how contextual diversity during word learning through reading benefits generalisation of learned
meanings to new contexts.

Po-Heng (Bobby) Chen presented some EEG work conducted with Kara Federmeier (University of Illinoisa) and Chia-Lin Lee (National Taiwan University: Reprioritizing the weaker meaning enhances the post-N400 frontal positivity.

See here for the full programme and abstracts.

New Preprint: Word-Meaning Priming from Short Narratives

Lena Blott and Jennifer Rodd have published a new preprint together with undergraduate researcher Oliver Hartopp and Professor Kate Nation from the University of Oxford.

The preprint can be accessed here.

Previous work from the Word Lab has demonstrated that we can prime people such that relatively infrequent meanings of ambiguous words (e.g. the “animal enclosure” meaning of “pen”) become temporarily more readily available. This has been termed “word-meaning priming” (see e.g. Betts et al., 2018; Gilbert et al., 2018; Rodd et al., 2013; Rodd et al., 2016).

For the present experiment, we designed our priming stimuli to be short narratives in which cues to disambiguation were relatively weak, and distant from the ambiguous word itself. We replicated the previously observed word-meaning priming effect with these stimuli, which are, arguably, more naturalistic than the types of sentences typically used in psycholinguistics studies. We hope that this experiment can be a step towards using more naturalistic and varied forms of disambiguation to study how comprehenders can flexibly update their lexical knowledge to aid comprehension.

The study was preregistered. Data and code are available here.

New Paper: Dominance Norms for Spoken Ambiguous Words in British English

Becky Gilbert and Jenni Rodd have published set of dominance norms for ambiguous words in the Journal of Cognition. These were produced by collating data from across a number of different experiments to construct a dataset of 29,542 data points for 243 spoken ambiguous words from UK participants.

This includes resources to help other researchers code word-association responses to ambiguous words in a semi-automated manner, saving researcher time and improving coding consistency. We hope that researchers will add their own data to this database further improving the precision of our dominance estimates.

Gilbert, R. A., & Rodd, J. M. (2022). Dominance Norms and Data for Spoken Ambiguous Words in British English. Journal of Cognition, 5(1): 4, pp. 1–14. DOI:

César Gutiérrez presenting at Psychonomic Society

Register for free to access this talk:

A single exposure to both meanings of ambiguous words helps rather than hinders processing of subordinate meanings

Many English words have multiple meanings. Less frequent (subordinate) meanings are harder to access than dominant meanings. Studies have shown that one encounter with subordinate meanings reduces this difficulty. However, natural language exposure includes both meanings and this could increase processing difficulty due to competition. In Experiment 1 60 native English speakers read natural sentences containing ambiguous words (one per meaning) and control sentences containing unambiguous words. Results from a semantic relatedness post-test showed that mixed exposure made subsequent processing of subordinate meanings non-significantly faster and significantly more accurate, with no change for dominant meanings and unambiguous words. Experiment 2 (preregistered, N=182) replicated the mixed-training boost for subordinate meanings in both reaction times and error rates. In addition, we found an unexpected training benefit for the unambiguous items. These results reveal that exposure to both meanings of an ambiguous word enhances performance for the more difficult subordinate meaning.

Po-Heng Chen joins the lab

We are delighted to welcome Po-Heng (Bobby) Chen to the lab.

Po-Heng is a PhD student in the Graduate Institute of Linguistics at National Taiwan University, where he works with Dr. Chia-Lin Lee. His research takes advantage of different technologies (e.g., eye tracking, ERPs, MEG, and fMRI), to study how humans learn and deploy syntactic and semantic information. Through examining individual variations and age-related differences, his goal is to understand the dynamic changes of the interaction between language-specific and domain-general cognitive and neural mechanisms across lifespan.

He was awarded a prestigious grant from the Taiwan Ministry of Science and Technology to spend 12 months working with us as a visiting researcher. He will be working on a project looking at the impact of prior knowledge on the word meaning learning in older and younger adults.