The child's acquisition of unfamiliar words : an experimental study
The present thesis investigates how preschool children acquire the meanings of unfamiliar words. In an attempt to clarify the notion of word meaning a three-fold distinction between sense, reference and denotation is introduced. It is suggested that knowing the full meaning of a word entails knowing both its sense and its denotation. Two main experimental approaches are implemented - the cross-sectional and the mini-longitudinal. In the first set of experiments (Chapters 2 and 3) children's ability to infer denotation (Chapter 2, n=88) and to identify the referent (Chapter 3, n=60) of a novel term are examined. In both sets of studies children have minimal exposure to the new terms and comprehension is assessed immediately. The results of Chapter 2 suggest that children have greater difficulties discovering the meanings of unknown verbs than they do unknown nouns and that there are considerable difficulties for the young child to coordinate information given about denotation in a 3-series sentence task. On the whole children find the task difficult and there is a suggestion that performance fails to reflect competence. The experimental evidence from Chapter 3 is, in contrast, unambiguous. Firstly, children find it harder to identify the referent of an unknown verb (p < .00001). However, children's responses are not random in this condition they choose the stimulus containing the objects initially associated with the unknown action (p < .001). This is not the case with failures to identify the referent of an unknown noun. Secondly, children have greater difficulties identifying the referent of an unknown noun if it replaces a known lexical item than if it replaces an unknown lexical item (p = .0033). It is argued that establishing reference is pre-empted by the existence of. an appropriate name in the child's vocabulary. Since acquiring the meaning of a new word is rarely a one-trial affair, the second section of this thesis attempts.to trace the acquisition of threenove1word~, an animal term (Chapter 5,n=16), a novel mode of locomotion (Chapter 6, n=12) and a novel shape or colour term (Chapter 7, n=14), in the lexicons of three and four-year old children over a period of several months. The method is based on that of Carey (1978 a & b). Tasks assessing production and comprehension as well as sense and denotation are introduced. In the case of the novel animal term, introduced by linguistic and perceptual contrast, children learn the term quickly and treat it in a similar manner to other known animal terms. Children have greater difficulty learning the new term for a novel mode of locomotion, supporting the earlier evidence suggesting that verbs are harder to learn than nouns. Chapter 7 attempts to assess the importance of solely linguistic contrast on the formation of the child's denotation of a novel term (shape vs. colour term). It is concluded that providing that the novel term is not pre-empted, lexical contrast is an effective manner of restricting denotation. Children's individual hypotheses concerning the meaning of the novel term are discussed in detail. The repercussions of these studies for future work in developmental semantics is discussed and a need to formulate objective criteria for full 'meaning, such as sense reference and denotation, is recognised.