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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

November 2011, Vol. 23, No. 11, Pages 3228-3240
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00002)
© 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Word Learning in 6-Month-Olds: Fast Encoding–Weak Retention
Article PDF (500.03 KB)

There has been general consensus that initial word learning during early infancy is a slow and time-consuming process that requires very frequent exposure, whereas later in development, infants are able to quickly learn a novel word for a novel meaning. From the perspective of memory maturation, this shift in behavioral development might represent a shift from slow procedural to fast declarative memory formation. Alternatively, it might be caused by the maturation of specific brain structures within the declarative memory system that may support lexical mapping from the very first. Here, we used the neurophysiological method of ERPs to watch the brain activity of 6-month-old infants, when repeatedly presented with object–word pairs in a cross-modal learning paradigm. We report first evidence that infants as young as 6 months are able to associate objects and words after only very few exposures. A memory test 1 day later showed that infants did not fully forget this newly acquired knowledge, although the ERP effects indicated it to be less stable than immediately after encoding. The combined results suggest that already at 6 months the encoding process of word learning is based on fast declarative memory formation, but limitations in the consolidation of declarative memory diminish the long lasting effect in lexical-semantic memory at that age.