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How Children Learn the Meanings of Words

27 July 2013

I just finished reading Paul Bloom’s How Children Learn the Meanings of Words. A reader of this book might expect to come away being able to answer the question, “how do children learn the meanings of words?” but in the final chapter, Dr. Bloom states that nobody knows how children learn the meanings of words! What, then, can we hope to gain by reading this book?

In claiming that nobody knows how children learn the meanings of words, the author is affirming what the previous ten chapters implied: this is complicated stuff, and state of the art research is just scratching the surface. The book covers a variety of subtopics related to word learning, including how children learn nouns, and pronouns, and numbers, and how they differentiate between naming things and naming representations of things, and how their words and their thoughts interrelate. But since what is known of these topics is still in its infancy, with much room for debate, rather than pontificating unsubstantiated opinions as facts, the author spends most of the book summarizing results from years of experimental linguistic research.

The first chapter kicks things off with some fun, considering how children learn what exactly the word “rabbit” refers to. If a child sees a grey rabbit running through the yard, and an adult points to it and says, “Rabbit!”, does the child understand that the word “rabbit” refers to a kind of animal? Or does the child believe that the word refers to that one particular animal (perhaps it is named “Rabbit”)? Or does the word refer only to grey rabbits, but not brown ones? Or to all mammals in general? Or to only the ears of the rabbit? Or to the tail? Or to “all and sundry undetached parts of rabbits”? Such questioning can carry us down the path of the ridiculous, but they are fair questions if we want to understand how words are learned.

My favorite excerpt from the book has nothing at all to do with linguistics, but was mentioned in passing as it pertains to cognition in general:

Adults are often oblivious to dramatic changes across a visual scene, even for objects that are the direct focus of attention, a phenomenon known as change blindness. In one striking demonstration of this, an experimenter started a conversation with a pedestrian and then, during a distraction, was surreptitiously replaced by a different experimenter. Only about half of the pedestrians noticed the change (Simons & Levin, 1998).

We also see a good rebuttal to the ever-popular Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, including a parody (originally published by Gregory Murphy) showcasing circular reasoning in the hypothesis:

Whorfian: Eskimos are greatly influenced by their language in their perception of snow. For example, they have N words for snow [N varies widely; see Pullum, 1991], whereas English only has one, snow. Having all these different words makes them think of snow very differently than, say, Americans do.

Skeptic: How do you know they think of snow differently?

Whorfian: Look at all the words they have for it! N of them!

Never content to assume a research experiment—even his own—has led to the one true answer, Dr. Bloom compares and contrasts the various experiments, pointing out both inadequacies and strengths, gently prodding the reader toward what he believes are the most plausible conclusions. As such, loaded with references to original research papers, the book serves beautifully as an introductory survey of word learning literature, and would be good for novice researchers in the field to jump-start their reading.

The book is relatively light on linguistic jargon, and should be accessible to readers without a background in linguistics, though some sections are more dense with terminology than others.

There are a number of pictures and graphs, but the book should be perfectly readable in electronic format. It is, however, presently only available in paperback.