Concept Development and Word Meanings
Words are just oral or written symbols for concepts that we have developed through various avenues of experience. The relationship of the words that stand for the concepts to the concepts themselves is arbitrary. A word means what a group of people agree that it means. That is why words are easily added to our language through coinage of new terms and why words that have been a part of our language for years change in meaning over time or add new meanings.
The idea that words are not inherent in their objects must be developed by young children. Five-and six-year-olds gradually make this discovery. Children who know more than one language learn this more readily because they know more than one word that stands for an object or idea. Learning the different meanings of multiple-meaning words in English, such as bear meaning "to carry" or "an animal," helps native English speakers acquire this concept. Students in the intermediate grades may develop this concept more firmly by reading and discussing the book Frindle by Andrew Clements.
Many words are learned by children through listening to their parents, other adults, and siblings talk about the things around them. Children experiment with using words and with seeing what effect the words have on those around them. Most people have encountered a small child repeating an unacceptable word or phrase for its obvious shock value. Although their understanding of the words that they use may be incomplete when they first attempt to use them, their trial-and-error method of usage eventually leads to a degree of mastery over the terms.
Children do not just randomly imitate the sounds they hear. They "select from the flow of language those words and sound patterns which have meaning to them: mama, milk, daddy" (Forester & Mickelson, 1979, p. 76). The first words are largely connected to concrete objects and events, but gradually the vocabularies will expand from a base of mainly nouns and verbs to include other word types. Chomsky (1979) points out that the most important part of the language learning that children do is not imitative; it is constructive, taking language rules that have been internalized by exposure to language usage in their environment and applying the rule system that they have inferred to produce new results. For example, when something comes apart, a child may say it is "untogether" because of the understanding she has of the function of the prefix un- in other words. Even though adults view such a usage as an error, it shows the child's evolving knowledge of language structure and is a very reasonable deduction in the early stages of language learning.
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