How Children Learn the Meaning of Words

Posted: Monday, June 18, 2007, 9:22 am

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(Total length: 56 min, 24 sec | 5-part series)

Learning a new language can be difficult enough on its own. Now imagine what it must be like for a baby, who has no understanding of the connection between words, objects and people. Yet somehow, by the time a child is two years old, s/he will need to learn approximately 10 words a day to keep up and will have retained around 10,000 words by the age of five. How are children able to do this, especially since words and their meanings are often context-driven and complex?

In the first segment, Dr. Laura Wagner introduces the many challenges facing children as they attempt to understand the meaning of words. The concept of "brute force" learning is explained: the first, highly-inefficient method children use to understand language.

In the second segment, Dr. Wagner discusses how children 18 months and older use social and emotional cues to help derive the meaning of words. She also offers a definition of what a word actually is and how there is an inherent social component to understanding its meaning.

In the third segment, word learning strategies are introduced: cognitive skills children have to help them understand the world. The concept of whole objects bias is explained, as well as other tendencies children have, such as making thematic matches and believing that new words should pair up with unfamilair objects.

In the fourth segment, fast mapping is explained: the way children can learn a new concept based on a single exposure to it. Dr. Wagner also emphasizes that kids don't learn words in isolation. Starting at 18 months, they are able to figure out word meanings based on their context in sentences. In addition, she mentions how kids pay attention to cues in language (articles before a noun, the number of nouns in a sentence, etc). For children, verbs are much harder to learn than nouns and are understood later as a result.

The power of observing and listening to the world is very important when trying to understanding words. Dr. Laura Wagner discusses an experiment where adults were asked to experience the world as an infant (human simulation paradigm) and why they made the same mistakes as their younger counterparts. She continues by emphasizing that "kids are so much smarter than you think they are" and finally ends the session by summing up some of the concepts introduced previously.

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