Neural network-based systems can now learn to locate the referents of words and phrases in images, answer questions about visual scenes, and even execute symbolic instructions as first-person actors in partially-observable worlds. To achieve this so-called grounded language learning, models must overcome certain well-studied learning challenges that are also fundamental to infants learning their first words. While it is notable that models with no meaningful prior knowledge overcome these learning obstacles, AI researchers and practitioners currently lack a clear understanding of exactly how they do so. Here we address this question as a way of achieving a clearer general understanding of grounded language learning, both to inform future research and to improve confidence in model predictions. For maximum control and generality, we focus on a simple neural network-based language learning agent trained via policy-gradient methods to interpret synthetic linguistic instructions in a simulated 3D world. We apply experimental paradigms from developmental psychology to this agent, exploring the conditions under which established human biases and learning effects emerge. We further propose a novel way to visualise and analyse semantic representation in grounded language learning agents that yields a plausible computational account of the observed effects.