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Learning the Meaning of Words

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Another important area of language development involves learning the meanings of words, a process that continues throughout one’s lifetime. As we mentioned earlier, children’s first words tend to be things in their immediate environments that adults talk about to them, as well as some words involved in social interaction. But if we think about what is ultimately involved in “knowing” what a word means, we cannot fail to be impressed with the complexity of such knowledge. We must, for example, figure out what other entities we encounter can be labeled with the same word. The family pet is doggie, but what else can I use this word for? As we have seen, even very young children have the idea that labels must be extended to other objects, although they initially may overgeneralize or undergeneralize word meanings. We must also learn that words occur at different levels of abstraction. For example, the family pet is a doggie but it is also an animal. We must learn, however, that while all doggies are animals, not all animals are doggies and other “non-doggies” can also be animals. Furthermore, to use a word appropriately, we must also know how to pronounce it, what part of speech it belongs to, what other words it can occur with, what grammatical endings can be attached to it, and whether it is regular or irregular in its morphology. We also come to know which words may have more than one meaning, which are synonyms, and which are antonyms. The task seems difficult enough even for simple nouns with clear and concrete referents, but that much more difficult for actions, abstractions, and function words.

A great deal of research has been devoted to the acquisition of word meanings and how we arrive at more-or-less shared meanings for words that we have acquired under a wide range of individual circumstances. While all researchers recognize that learning word meanings requires interaction with adults, they differ in their perspectives on how active and independent children are in forming their own hypotheses. Some researchers assume that children approach the task with certain conceptual constraints that help them narrow down their guesses in the very early stages of acquisition. Clark (2003) outlines several of these proposed constraints. One says that children will assume you are naming a whole object, rather than just part of an object, when it is pointed out to them. Doggie is the whole animal, not just its tail or its paw. Another constraint says that children will isolate an object from its surroundings, so that doggie means the animal but does not include the rug it is lying on or the bone in its mouth. Another such constraint proposes that young children favor basic categories (apple as opposed to fruit or Macintosh) when they are learning new words. It has also been proposed that if very young children already know a term for an object, they will not accept another one. So, if they know dog, they will not accept animal or poodle as alternative labels for objects they have classified as dogs.

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