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Sound-symbolism boosts novel word learning

Lockwood, G., Dingemanse, M., & Hagoort, P. (2016). Sound-symbolism boosts novel word learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42(8), 1274-1281. doi:10.1037/xlm0000235.
The existence of sound-symbolism (or a non-arbitrary link between form and meaning) is well-attested. However, sound-symbolism has mostly been investigated with nonwords in forced choice tasks, neither of which are representative of natural language. This study uses ideophones, which are naturally occurring sound-symbolic words that depict sensory information, to investigate how sensitive Dutch speakers are to sound-symbolism in Japanese in a learning task. Participants were taught 2 sets of Japanese ideophones; 1 set with the ideophones’ real meanings in Dutch, the other set with their opposite meanings. In Experiment 1, participants learned the ideophones and their real meanings much better than the ideophones with their opposite meanings. Moreover, despite the learning rounds, participants were still able to guess the real meanings of the ideophones in a 2-alternative forced-choice test after they were informed of the manipulation. This shows that natural language sound-symbolism is robust beyond 2-alternative forced-choice paradigms and affects broader language processes such as word learning. In Experiment 2, participants learned regular Japanese adjectives with the same manipulation, and there was no difference between real and opposite conditions. This shows that natural language sound-symbolism is especially strong in ideophones, and that people learn words better when form and meaning match. The highlights of this study are as follows: (a) Dutch speakers learn real meanings of Japanese ideophones better than opposite meanings, (b) Dutch speakers accurately guess meanings of Japanese ideophones, (c) this sensitivity happens despite learning some opposite pairings, (d) no such learning effect exists for regular Japanese adjectives, and (e) this shows the importance of sound-symbolism in scaffolding language learning
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