How Do Children Learn the Meaning of Words?

Older children can also use what they know about the structure of language to figure out word meanings. In one study, children saw a pair of hands kneading some material in a bowl. An adult described the picture as “sibbing” to one group of children, as “a sib” to the second group of children, and as “some sib” to the third group of children. Children told the picture was “sibbing” interpreted “sib” as describing the kneading action. They knew that words that end in “ing” tend to describe actions. Children who heard the picture described as “a sib” interpreted “sib” as the container. They knew that when “a” comes before a word, it tends to describe things that you can count. Children told the picture was “some sib” interpreted “sib” as describing the material in the bowl. They knew that when “some” comes before a word it tends to describe things that you cannot count. This shows that children rely on what they already know about language to figure out what new words mean.

  • Back-and-forth or contingent interactions
    exchanges where a caregiver times her responses to a child’s behavior
    Canonical babbling
    producing the same consonant and vowel over and over, such as dadada
    Infant-directed speech
    a special tone and style of speech used to talk to young children. It’s also called parentese
    Joint attention
    shared attention between social partners to an object or event
    using a word to describe more object categories than it actually represents
    failing to extend a word to other objects in the same category
    Vocabulary spurt
    rapid growth in word learning