The map trap: Why and how word learning research should move beyond mapping

Erica H. Wojcik, Martin Zettersten, Viridiana L. Benitez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


A pervasive goal in the study of how children learn word meanings is to explain how young children solve the mapping problem. The mapping problem asks how language learners connect a label to its referent. Mapping is one part of word learning, however, it does not reflect other critical components of word meaning construction, such as the encoding of lexico-semantic relations and socio-pragmatic context. In this paper, we argue that word learning researchers' overemphasis of mapping has constrained our experimental paradigms and hypotheses, leading to misconceived theories and policy interventions. We first explain how the mapping focus limits our ability to study the richness and complexity of what infants and children learn about, and do with, word meanings. Then, we describe how our focus on mapping has constrained theory development. Specifically, we show how it has led to (a) the misguided emphasis on referent selection and ostensive labeling, and (b) the undervaluing of diverse pathways to word knowledge, both within and across cultures. We also review the consequences of the mapping focus outside of the lab, including myopic language learning interventions. Last, we outline an alternative, more inclusive approach to experimental study and theory construction in word learning research. This article is categorized under: Psychology > Language Psychology > Theory and Methods Psychology > Learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1596
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2022


  • child-directed speech
  • label-referent mapping
  • lexico-semantic network
  • ostensive labeling
  • word learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Psychology


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