Ambiguous words are harder to learn

Tamar Degani, Natasha Tokowicz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)299-314
Number of pages16
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2010
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
* 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.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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