Title

Spotting Dalmatians: Children’s Ability to Discover Subordinate-Level Word Meanings Cross-Situationally

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

7-13-2019

Publication Title

Cognitive Psychology

Volume

114

First page number:

1

Last page number:

19

Abstract

Even when children encounter a novel word in the situation of a clear and unique referent, they are nevertheless faced with the problem of semantic uncertainty: when “puziv” refers to a co-present spotted dog, does the word mean Fido, Dalmatian, dog, animal, or entity? Here we explored the extent to which children (3–5 years of age) can reason about a novel word’s meaning from information they have gathered cross-situationally, from a series of simple ostensive labeling events (“I see a puziv!”). Of particular interest were the conditions under which children arrive at a subordinate level meaning (e.g., Dalmatian) rather than a basic level meaning (e.g., dog). Experiment 1 showed that children (N = 32) were capable of using lexical contrast and/or mutual exclusivity cross-situationally, such that they arrived at subordinate level meanings only when the words being learned contrasted at the subordinate level, otherwise they strongly preferred basic level meanings (e.g., dog) even when the word had previously referred to subordinate level exemplars (always Dalmatians). Experiment 2 showed that some children in this same age range (N = 20) can also arrive at subordinate level meanings cross-situationally when offered relatively minimal linguistic support (“It’s a kind of dog.”). The findings are interpreted with respect to current theories of cross-situational word learning, and suggest that word meanings rather than sets of referential exemplars are tracked and used for cross-situational comparison.

Keywords

Word learning; Cross-situational learning; Subordinate level meaning

Disciplines

Child Psychology | Cognitive Psychology

Language

English

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