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When shown a familiar and a novel object and asked to pick the referent of a novel label, even 1-year-olds tend to favor the novel object (Halberda, 2003; Mervis & Bertrand, 1994). However, only older children tend to solve a metacognitive version of this disambiguation problem. Slocum and Merriman (2018) found that among 3- and 4-year-olds, only those who acknowledged their ignorance of novel labels tended to judge that the referents of other novel labels were hidden in a bucket of things “I don’t know” rather than a bucket of things “I know.” Although children who lack an awareness of their lexical ignorance can solve ordinary disambiguation problems, we hypothesized that those who possess this awareness would solve them more efficiently. We predicted that they would decide more rapidly and make fewer errors than other children, and that these differences would increase as the number of familiar objects increased.
Thirty-four children (M = 49 months, range = 36-62 months; eighteen boys) used a touchscreen tablet to choose the referent of a spoken label from a set of depicted objects. Half of the labels were highly familiar and half were made-up words. The choices consisted of one unfamiliar object and either two, three, four, or five familiar objects. Children's accuracy and response times were measured. They also received tests of receptive vocabulary size and awareness of lexical ignorance. Consistent with our hypothesis, the results indicated that as the number of familiar object foils increased, so did the performance gap between low- and high-aware children for both response time and accuracy.
A repeated measures ANOVA was conducted and revealed a significant interaction, in which awareness of lexical ignorance moderated the effect of number of foils on accuracy, F (3, 32) = 3.17, p < .05. A separate repeated measures ANOVA was conducted and found an even stronger effect with respect to response time. Awareness of lexical ignorance significantly moderated the effect of number of foils on response time, such that as foils increased, the difference in response time between low- and high-aware children significantly increased, F (3, 32) = 9.07, p < .001. Although age and response time were significantly correlated (r = -.49, p < .01), only awareness of lexical ignorance moderated the effect of number of foils on response time (see Figure 1).
These results may be explained by a direct and/or an indirect relation between awareness of lexical ignorance and efficiency of disambiguation problem-solving. As the number of familiar objects increases, high-aware children’s processing of the problem may benefit directly from their realizing that they already know every object except one. Regarding the indirect relation, high-aware children may also solve these problems more efficiently because they execute lower-level processes such as object encoding, label retrieval, and label comparison more efficiently. For evidence that the efficiency of such lower-level processes promotes the development of an awareness of lexical ignorance, see Merriman and Lipko (2008) and Lipowski & Merriman (2011).