Friday, December 1, 2017

The impact of recent and long-term experience on access to word meanings: Evidence from large-scale internet-based experiments

Many English words have more than one meaning. We often need to quickly decide which meaning is correct in the language that we hear or read. The series of studies reported in this paper examined whether our ability to quickly and accurately retrieve a word is shaped by experience. The studies used the ‘word-meaning priming’ paradigm to assess meaning preference. In this task, participants would hear prime sentences that included a word with many possible meanings (e.g., FAN – a cooling instrument or someone that cheers on a favourite past time) however, the intended meaning of the word was always made clear in the sentence (e.g., The star was cheered loudly by the FANS). After this, the participant completed a word association task where they saw a word and were asked to give a word with a related meaning. For words that were primed like ‘FAN’, the participants would be more likely to say a word related to the meaning from the prime sentence if that meaning was made more accessible by the priming.
Experiments 1 and 2 examined short-term priming effects. In experiment 1, after hearing the prime paragraphs read during a radio program, participants completed the word association task online. Results revealed an effect of time and age. Priming was stronger when the experiment was completed within the first day (and rapidly delayed within the first hour) and younger participants were more readily primed. The purpose of Experiment 2 was to systematically compare the time course of priming (i.e., 1 min, 20 min, and 40 min) in a controlled setting. Results replicated Experiment 1 in that priming was strongest at the 1 minute delay and reduced by the 20th and 40th minute (which didn’t differ). Together, these results confirm that relatively recent experience can influence meaning selection.
Long-term priming effects were explored in Experiment 3 and 4. The focus was on how rowers—due to their rowing experience—might easily access rowing-specific meanings for relatively common words (e.g., “square” meaning the position of the oar). Experiment 3 found stronger effects for rowers who had rowed for a long time and by those who started at a young age. Experiment 4 found that rowing-related meaning was influenced by the most recent rowing experience; increase in rowing responses was particularly driven by participants who had rowed on the same day.
These experiments show that your recent experience influence word learning. The findings could suggest that activating background knowledge of a specific meaning prior to task completion could facilitate access to the needed meaning during the task. Furthermore, the rapid decay of priming effects might mean that repeated exposure within a short time window is necessary to maintain the accessibility of word meaning.

Blogger: Theresa Pham is a student in the combined MClSc/PhD program working under the supervision of Dr. Lisa Archibald. Theresa’s work examines the learning of phonological (speech sound) and semantic (meaning) aspects of words.

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