Memory & Cognition

, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 130–144 | Cite as

Learning new meanings for known words: Perturbation of original meanings and retention of new meanings

  • Xiaoping FangEmail author
  • Charles A. PerfettiEmail author


Learning a new, unrelated meaning for a known word faces competition from the word’s original meaning. Moreover, the connection of the word with its original meaning also shows a subtle form of interference, a perturbation, when tested immediately after learning. However, the long-term effects of both types of interference are unclear. The present study paired both high and low frequency words with new unrelated meanings, testing the fate of new and original meanings on three different days over one week as a function of word familiarity. The results were that learners maintained memory for new meanings of high frequency words better than the new meanings of low frequency words over one week. Following learning, meaning decisions on high frequency words that required the original meaning of the trained word were delayed relative to decisions on control words – but only when testing was immediate and the stimulus-onset asynchrony (SOA) between the trained word and its original meaning probe was 200 ms. When the SOA was 500 ms or when the test was delayed by one day or one week, no effect occurred. The findings indicate that in the learning of new meanings for known words, word familiarity benefits long-term retention of new meanings. The facilitation effect occurs along with a perturbation effect, in which the original meaning of a familiar word is made momentarily less accessible immediately after learning.


Word learning Word frequency Retention Memory Perturbation 



This research was supported by National Science Foundation Grant SBE08-36012 through the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center and by NIH award 1R01HD058566-01A1 to the University of Pittsburgh (PI: C. Perfetti). The authors would like to thank Sarah DiMuccio for help with stimuli development, Hannah Chris Legerwood, Austin Marcus, Kimberly Muth, and Paula Pascual for help with data collection, and the anonymous reviewers for their very constructive comments on the earlier versions of the manuscript. Part of results of Experiment 1 was presented at the 22nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Scientific Studies of Reading, Big Island, HI, USA, 2015.

Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (DOCX 146 kb)


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Copyright information

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Learning Research and Development CenterUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA
  2. 2.Center for Neural Basis of CognitionPittsburghUSA

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