How iconicity helps people learn new words: neural correlates and individual differences in sound-symbolic bootstrapping
Lockwood, G., Hagoort, P., & Dingemanse, M. (2016). How iconicity helps people learn new words: neural correlates and individual differences in sound-symbolic bootstrapping. Collabra, 2(1): 7. doi: 10.1525/collabra.42.
Sound symbolism is increasingly understood as involving iconicity, or perceptual analogies and cross-modal correspondences between form and meaning, but the search for its functional and neural correlates is ongoing. Here we study how people learn sound-symbolic words, using behavioural, electrophysiological and individual difference measures. Dutch participants learned Japanese ideophones —lexical sound-symbolic words— with a translation of either the real meaning (in which form and meaning show cross-modal correspondences) or the opposite meaning (in which form and meaning show cross-modal clashes). Participants were significantly better at identifying the words they learned in the real condition, correctly remembering the real word pairing 86.7% of the time, but the opposite word pairing only 71.3% of the time. Analysing event-related potentials (ERPs) during the test round showed that ideophones in the real condition elicited a greater P3 component and late positive complex than ideophones in the opposite condition. In a subsequent forced choice task, participants were asked to guess the real translation from two alternatives. They did this with 73.0% accuracy, well above chance level even for words they had encountered in the opposite condition, showing that people are generally sensitive to the sound-symbolic cues in ideophones. Individual difference measures showed that the ERP effect in the test round of the learning task was greater for participants who were more sensitive to sound symbolism in the forced choice task. The main driver of the difference was a lower amplitude of the P3 component in response to ideophones in the opposite condition, suggesting that people who are more sensitive to sound symbolism may have more difficulty to suppress conflicting cross-modal information. The findings provide new evidence that cross-modal correspondences between sound and meaning facilitate word learning, while cross-modal clashes make word learning harder, especially for people who are more sensitive to sound symbolism.