Sound symbolism boosts novel word learning: comparing ideophones and adjectives

We have a new paper out. It’s actually been available since February in an online-first version, but for those of us who love page numbers and dead trees, the journal has now printed it in its August issue on pages 1274-1281. Citation:

Lockwood, G., Dingemanse, M., & Hagoort, P. (2016). Sound-symbolism boosts novel word learning (PDF). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42(8), 1274-1281. doi:10.1037/xlm0000235

This is another one for which we’ve made available the stimuli —word lists and sound files— through OSF, contributing to our mission to make research from our lab replicable. Also, we have since replicated the results in a follow-up study where we also took EEG and individual difference measures.

I provide a quick summary in 2×3 points below. For a write-up that’s much more fun and has great illustrations, check out Gwilym Lockwood’s Sound symbolism boosts novel word learning: the MS Paint version.

  1. We test how people learn real words from an unfamiliar language. If you give people a choice (does bukubuku mean ‘slim’ or ‘fat’?), most will get it right. But in real life we are rarely given such choices; instead, we learn associations, some of which may stick better than others. Does sound symbolism boost word learning?There is some evidence it does, but this is mostly from studies in which people learn artificial words. The real litmus test of the power of sound symbolism is to give people a learning task with real, existing words. We test how well Dutch people learn the meanings of words from Japanese, a language that is unfamiliar to them.
  2. We contrast ideophones and adjectives. Ideophones are said to be sound-symbolic, i.e. to show iconic associations between sound and meaning. However, evidence for this so far has mostly come from studies without a strong control condition (which compare ideophones with nonwords). We want to be sure that we are tapping into whatever may be special about ideophones as a word class, so we compare the learning of ideophones and adjectives from one and the same language. This helps us tease apart general ease (or difficulty) of learning from a boost that may be specifically due to sound symbolism. We expected that ideophones are significantly easier to learn than adjectives.
  3. We swap meanings to see if we can make and break the effect of sound symbolism. Prior work has shown that sound-symbolic cues may get you in the rough ballpark of the semantic domain (e.g., size) but may not be enough to distinguish between opposite meanings (e.g., small vs. large). We have people learn some words with their real translation and others with their opposite translation. If there is an arbitrary connection between form and meaning (as in most adjectives), this should make no difference to how easy or hard they are to learn. But if there is an iconic connection that helps you learn a word (as in most ideophones), breaking this connection may well make it harder to learn them.

Key figures from the paper

And here are our main findings:

  1. Sound-symbolism boosts word learning. The sound-symbolic bootstrapping effect, as it has come to be known, extends to real lexical words from existing languages. This is an important validation of the earlier findings based on pseudowords.
  2. Ideophones are easier to learn than adjectives. Of the ideophones, 86% are recalled correctly; for the adjectives, this is only 79%. So all words can be learned (fortunately! otherwise what would be the point of having them?), but some are significantly easier to learn than others. The ones that are easier to learn are ideophones, i.e. those words that have iconic associations between form and meaning.
  3. Ideophones with their opposite meaning are harder to learn than adjectives. If we sever the connection between form and meaning, this doesn’t affect the learning of adjectives: it doesn’t make it easier or harder. This is what we expect of arbitrary words. But doing the same thing to ideophones does affect learning: ideophones presented with their opposite meaning are harder to recall than ideophones with their real meaning. So not only does the special association between form and meaning in ideophones provide a learning advantage; reversing the association results in a learning difficulty.

Since this study came out, it’s been featured on the Lingspace vlog as well as in several other media — see its page.

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