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 ite~ 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 nqvel shape or colour term (Chapter 7,
n=14), in the lexicons of three and four-year old children qve~ a periqd
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
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 objectnecriteria for full
'meaning, such as sense reference and denotation, isrecognised