Moving Beyond “Nouns in the Lab”: Using Naturalistic Data to Understand Why Infants’ First Words Include Uh-Oh and Hi

Kennedy Casey, Christine E. Potter, Casey Lew-Williams, Erica H. Wojcik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Why do infants learn some words earlier than others? Many theories of early word learning focus on explaining how infants map labels onto concrete objects. However, words that are more abstract than object nouns, such as uh-oh, hi, more, up, and all-gone, are typically among the first to appear in infants’ vocabularies. We combined a behavioral experiment with naturalistic observational research to explore how infants learn and represent this understudied category of high-frequency, routine-based non-nouns, which we term “everyday words.” In Study 1, we found that a conventional eye-tracking measure of comprehension was insufficient to capture U.S.-based English-learning 10- to 16-month-old infants’ emerging understanding of everyday words. In Study 2, we analyzed the visual and social scenes surrounding caregivers’ and infants’ use of everyday words in a naturalistic video corpus. This ecologically motivated research revealed that everyday words rarely co-occurred with consistent visual referents, making their early learnability difficult to reconcile with dominant word learning theories. Our findings instead point to complex patterns in the types of situations associated with everyday words that could contribute to their early representation in infants’ vocabularies. By leveraging both experimental and observational methods, this investigation underscores the value of using naturalistic data to broaden theories of early learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2162-2173
Number of pages12
JournalDevelopmental Psychology
Issue number11
StatePublished - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


  • ecological validity
  • eye tracking
  • language input
  • naturalistic recordings
  • word learning


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