The role of exposure to isolated words in early vocabulary development

Michael R. Brent
Washington University
Jeffrey Mark Siskind
NEC Research Institute, Inc.


Fluent speech contains no known acoustic analog of the blank spaces between printed words. Early research presumed that word learning is driven primarily by exposure to isolated words. In the last decade there has been a shift to the view that exposure to isolated words is unreliable and plays little if any role in early word learning. This study revisits the role of isolated words. The results show (a) that isolated words are a reliable feature of speech to infants, (b) that they include a variety of word types, many of which are repeated in close temporal proximity, (c) that about three fourths of the words infants produce are words that mothers speak in isolation, and (d) that the frequency with which a child hears a word in isolation predicts whether that word will be learned better than the child's total frequency of exposure to that word. Thus, exposure to isolated words may significantly facilitate vocabulary development at its earliest stages.

To appear in Cognition

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