Children Learn the Meanings of Words Through a Combination of Sophisticated Cognitive Abilities, Yale Researcher Finds
At the point that children utter their first words, a complex set of conceptual, social and linguistic mental capacities are at work, Yale researcher Paul Bloom reports in his new book, “How Children Learn the Meanings of Words.”
“In addition to general learning and memory abilities, children learn word meanings by utilizing cognitive skills that are normally used for other purposes, such as social reasoning, concept acquisition and appreciation of syntactic structure,” said Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale.
While other research has associated word learning with some of these abilities, Bloom is the first to show how children need all of them to learn word meanings.
“The child’s ability to learn new words is nothing short of miraculous,” Bloom said. “Children show some understanding of words before they start to speak. Word learning usually begins at about 10 months of age. It starts slow-children begin by learning a few new words a week-but they gradually get better at word learning, and an eight-year-old can pick up well over 10 new words a day. An average American high school graduate knows about 60,000 different words.”
In his book, Bloom explains the complex processes involved in word learning. His discussion is broad in scope, covering topics such as the effect of language on spatial reasoning, the origin of essentialist beliefs, the emergence of number words and the young child’s understanding of representational art.
While children learn words by being exposed to contexts in which they can infer their meanings, Bloom said words do not need to be presentedwith their definitions. They can be learned from overheard speech. Also, children do not need to be encouraged or corrected.
Learning number words, Bloom said, is also very complicated. While many two-year-olds can count up to three, it took them nearly a full additional year to learn which words referred to which numbers.
“Number words are unusual because the linguistic cues apply about a year before children manage to work out the words’ specific meanings,” said Bloom. “This gap might have to do with the limited exposure to the relevant learning situations. It is not enough that children hear ‘the three dogs’; they have to hear it in a situation in which they can be certain that the word ‘three’ refers to the numerical property of threeness. Studies have shown that such cases are not as frequent as one would imagine.”
Bloom suggests that many similarities exist between word learning and other aspects of language development, but there are differences. Systems such as syntax and morphology are self-contained, with their own rules and representations. In contrast, it is impossible to explain how children learn the meaning of a word without an understanding of certain nonlinguistic mental capacities, including how children think about the minds of others and how they make sense of the external world.
“The study of how children learn the meanings of words could tell us a lot about the nature and development of the human mind,” said Bloom.