How a picture becomes a word: individual differences in the development of language-mediated visual search

Sarah Chabal, Sayuri Hayakawa*, Viorica Marian

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Over the course of our lifetimes, we accumulate extensive experience associating the things that we see with the words we have learned to describe them. As a result, adults engaged in a visual search task will often look at items with labels that share phonological features with the target object, demonstrating that language can become activated even in non-linguistic contexts. This highly interactive cognitive system is the culmination of our linguistic and visual experiences—and yet, our understanding of how the relationship between language and vision develops remains limited. The present study explores the developmental trajectory of language-mediated visual search by examining whether children can be distracted by linguistic competitors during a non-linguistic visual search task. Though less robust compared to what has been previously observed with adults, we find evidence of phonological competition in children as young as 8 years old. Furthermore, the extent of language activation is predicted by individual differences in linguistic, visual, and domain-general cognitive abilities, with the greatest phonological competition observed among children with strong language abilities combined with weaker visual memory and inhibitory control. We propose that linguistic expertise is fundamental to the development of language-mediated visual search, but that the rate and degree of automatic language activation depends on interactions among a broader network of cognitive abilities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2
JournalCognitive Research: Principles and Implications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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