Borovsky, A., Kutas, M. , Elman, J. (2010). Learning to use words: Event-related potentials index single-shot contextual word learning. Cognition, 116(2), pp. 289-296.


Humans have the remarkable capacity to learn words from a single instance. The goal of this study was to examine the impact of initial learning context on the understanding of novel word usage using event-related brain potentials. Participants saw known and unknown words in strongly or weakly constraining sentence contexts. After each sentence context, word usage knowledge was assessed via plausibility ratings of these words as the objects of transitive verbs. Plausibility effects were observed in the N400 component to the verb only when the upcoming novel word object had initially appeared in a strongly constraining context. These results demonstrate that rapid word learning is modulated by contextual constraint and reveal a rapid mental process that is sensitive to novel word usage.


Jeff Elman

Marta Kutas

Arielle Borovsky


Center for Research in Language