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Ambiguous words are harder to learn*


Relatively little is known about the role of ambiguity in adult second-language learning. In this study, native English speakers learned Dutch–English translation pairs that either mapped in a one-to-one fashion (unambiguous items) in that a Dutch word uniquely corresponded to one English word, or mapped in a one-to-many fashion (ambiguous items), with two Dutch translations corresponding to a single English word. These two Dutch translations could function as exact synonyms, corresponding to a single meaning, or could correspond to different meanings of an ambiguous English word (e.g., wisselgeld denotes the monetary meaning of the word change, and verandering denotes alteration). Several immediate and delayed tests revealed that such translation ambiguity creates a challenge for learners. Furthermore, words with multiple translations corresponding to the same meaning are more difficult to learn than words with multiple translations corresponding to multiple meanings, suggesting that a one-to-many mapping underlies this ambiguity disadvantage.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Natasha Tokowicz, Learning Research & Development Center, 3939 O'Hara St., Room 634, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260,
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This project was supported by NSF-BCS 0745372 and a Language Learning Grant awarded to NT. We thank the members of the PLUM Lab and Kevin Jarbo, Adiam Mekonen, and Angela Sperl for research assistance, and Charles A. Perfetti and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. A version of this research was presented at the 49th Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society, in November 2008.

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Bilingualism: Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1366-7289
  • EISSN: 1469-1841
  • URL: /core/journals/bilingualism-language-and-cognition
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