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Adult offer, word-class, and child uptake in early lexical acquisition


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How do adults offer new words from different parts of speech? This study examined the offers in book-reading interactions for 48 dyads (parents and children aged 2- to 5-years-old). The parents relied on fixed syntactic frames, final position, and emphatic stress to highlight unfamiliar words. As they talked to their children about the referent objects, events, or scenes, they also linked new words to other terms in the pertinent semantic domain, thereby presenting further information about possible meanings. Children attended to new words, often repeating them in the next turn, and, as they got older, they too related new words to familiar terms as they talked about their referents with their parents. These data add further evidence that interaction in conversation supports the process of language acquisition.
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DOI: 10.1177/0142723710370537
2010 30: 250First Language
Eve V. Clark
Adult offer, word-class, and child uptake in early lexical acquisition
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Corresponding author:
Eve V. Clark, Department of Linguistics, Margaret Jacks Hall, Bldg 460, Stanford University,
Stanford, CA 94305-2150, USA.
First Language
30(3-4) 250–269
© The Author(s) 2010
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
DOI: 10.1177/0142723710370537
Adult offer, word-class, and
child uptake in early lexical
Eve V. Clark
Stanford University, USA
How do adults offer new words from different parts of speech? This study examined
the offers in book-reading interactions for 48 dyads (parents and children aged 2- to
5-years-old). The parents relied on fixed syntactic frames, final position, and emphatic
stress to highlight unfamiliar words. As they talked to their children about the referent
objects, events, or scenes, they also linked new words to other terms in the pertinent
semantic domain, thereby presenting further information about possible meanings.
Children attended to new words, often repeating them in the next turn, and, as they got
older, they too related new words to familiar terms as they talked about their referents
with their parents. These data add further evidence that interaction in conversation
supports the process of language acquisition.
interaction, lexical acquisition, repeats, uptake, word-class
How do adults introduce unfamiliar terms for objects, parts, properties, locations, and
activities where the terms are drawn from different parts of speech? To what extent do
they highlight such words in explicit introductions, using word order, say, as in ‘This is
a lace’ (to introduce a term for a shoe-part, a noun), or ‘These are metal’ (to introduce a
term for a property, an adjective)? Do they relate them to other terms already known, in
implicit introductions like ‘Do you hear that dog barking?’ or ‘I want to find a bird that
warbles’ (where barking and warbles are both terms for activities, both verbs)? And, do
children provide any evidence of attending to new words, regardless of their word-class?
Do adults rely on the same structural devices to introduce new words across different
word-classes? Or do they distinguish among them, favoring explicit introductions of the
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Clark 251
unfamiliar term with nouns, but implicit ones with verbs, prepositions, and adjectives?
That is, they could presuppose that children can infer what an unfamiliar word might
mean, without highlighting, in the case of verbs, adjectives, or prepositions, word-classes
whose syntax generally precludes their appearing in final position or receiving emphatic
stress. The present study was designed to find some answers to these questions.
Previous analysis of parents’ spontaneous introductions of unfamiliar nouns to young
children suggests that adults highlight them by using fixed frames to present them in
final position. In fact, such offers accounted for the majority of direct adult offers in an
analysis of five longitudinal corpora (Clark & Wong, 2002). Parents signaled their offers
by relying on a limited number of deictic frames that placed the new noun in final,
stressed position. Some typical examples are listed in (1) and (2):
(1) Father: That’s a pen. (Naomi, 1;8.6; Sachs 3:84)
(2) Mother: What is this? (pointing at a chair) Chair. (Allison 1;4.21; Bloom 1:86)
Frames like ‘That’s a _____ provide children with a useful hint that a new noun is about
to come up. Placing new words in utterance-final position could also highlight unfamiliar
terms for child-addressees, by offering them directly, prominently marked by both word
order and stress (Fernald & Mazzie, 1991; Grassmann & Tomasello, 2007). Yet children
also hear and learn words other than nouns from the start. So the problem is one of identify-
ing utterances that offer children unfamiliar non-nouns, namely verbs, adjectives, and
prepositions. These introductions appear to be indirect in that the normal placement of the
word in an utterance often fails to highlight it as new, unlike the utterances in (1) and (2).
Most of the 1446 adult utterances that Clark and Wong (2002) identified as offering
new words in fact offered new nouns (84%). Among the remaining offers, 4% were adjec-
tives, 5% verbs, and 5% prepositions. Typical examples of these, with the new word from
the adult underlined and any follow-up child repeat in bold type, are shown in (3) to (5):
(3) An adjective
Adam (3;8.0; Brown/Adam 36:1473+)
Mother: what color is this? this is orange.
Adam: orange? what color is dis?
Mother: that is red.
(4) A verb
Naomi (1;6.16; Sachs 2:653+)
Naomi: doggie.
Mother: what’s the doggie doing? is the doggie smelling?
Naomi: doggie.
(5) A preposition
Naomi (2;7.16; Sachs 68:338+)
Naomi: one fell down on a tree.
Father: he fell down from a tree.
Naomi: he fell down from a tree.
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252 First Language 30(3-4)
Notice that in (3), the new adjective is introduced in predicate form, in final position,
and can therefore carry utterance-final stress. The same holds for the new verb in (4). But
the preposition in (5) is introduced as head of its phrase. This could be because it is pre-
sented as an embedded correction to Naomi’s choice of preposition, and so probably
received contrastive stress. Adults, then, must be able to highlight terms that are not
normally singled out by word order or stress.
Direct offers are those where adults highlight the new word being offered, regardless
of its word class. Nouns can be highlighted as in (1) and (2); verbs and adjectives as in
(3) and (4), and prepositions, at least when used contrastively to correct an earlier child
utterance, as in (5). But when an offer is not highlighted, the addressee can ignore it or
else rely only on inferences from context. For example, prenominal adjectives like
shaggy, as in the shaggy dog, are hard to highlight except in corrective contexts, because
they occur in prenominal position and do not carry stress. Much the same holds for tran-
sitive verbs, as in The dog bit the postman, where the verb precedes the direct object and
so doesn’t receive sentential stress. Prepositions precede their noun phrases, as in beside
the stairs or above the window, so they too are non-final, and, except in corrective cases,
can receive no added stress. Intransitive verbs, though, as in The piglets squealed when
the boy picked them up, can appear in clause-final position and so receive stress.
If adults prefer to make direct offers of unfamiliar terms, they should rely on whatever
devices are available for each part of speech. For nouns, they should favor word order
and stress, as in (1) and (2). Intransitive verbs can appear finally so adults could rely here
too on word order and stress. And they might highlight transitive verbs with contrastive
stress, with a question-answer format (as in (4)), where an initial general-purpose do is
followed by a more specific verb, with contrastive stress, as in the hypothetical What is
the dog doing? He’s chewing the shoe. The same strategy could perhaps be adapted to
highlight prepositions, as in the hypothetical Where’s the ball? It’s under the table.
Adults also highlight new terms by placing them in the appropriate semantic domain,
relating them to nearby terms that are already familiar (e.g., Callanan, 1990; Goodman,
McDonough, & Brown, 1998; Rogers, 1978). They can use nearby words in contrast to
the new one. An adjective like shaggy might be used alongside smooth or short-haired
(for dogs); winding beside straight (for paths or streams); chew beside bite or eat (for
people or animals); squeal beside squeak, grunt, or call (for animals) and above beside
on, over, high up, or on top of (for spatial locations). Such contrastive uses would also
help children assign unfamiliar words to the appropriate domain as they make inferences
about possible meanings (Clark, 2002).
Do such options for adults change as children get older? In talking to younger chil-
dren, parents may use more repeats of target words, perhaps as single words, until the
children repeat the word to signal their attention to it (see Clark, 2007). With older chil-
dren, adults will probably assume children will pick up the new word right away, so they
should spend more time ‘placing’ each new word in context, talking about the relevant
semantic domain, and perhaps asking children more test questions to make sure they
have grasped the new meaning.
In this study, I focus on some of the characteristics of adult–child interactions in
English as adults introduce children to unfamiliar words from different parts of speech.
The general prediction is that adults will highlight new words. To do this, they will rely
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Clark 253
on one or more devices, including phrase- or utterance-final word position, word stress,
and linkage of new words to semantic neighbors. Children should attend to new words
and indicate this by repeating them in subsequent turns within the relevant parent–child
exchange. Earlier research showed that children repeat new words at consistently higher
rates than they do new information (Clark, 2006, 2007). Adult offers should therefore
be followed up by child repeats of new words, and both adults and children should con-
tribute to linking new words to other terms already known within the pertinent domains.
Parents were given the familiar task of looking at a picture-book with their children and
talking with them about what was on each page. This is a common activity in everyday
life, and involved a familiar mode of interaction for all the children. This task was chosen
to elicit the kinds of conversational exchanges adults normally engage in with young
children in order to look more closely at the information parents offer about new words
(see, e.g., Murase, Dale, Ogura, Yamashita, & Mahieu, 2005; Tulviste, 2003).
Data were collected from 48 parent–child pairs, mainly from middle- to upper-middle-
class families, with 12 children at each of the following ages: 2-year-olds (mean age 2;6,
range 2;3–2;8); 3-year-olds (mean age 3;4, range 3;1–3;8); 4-year-olds (mean age 4;5,
range 4;1–4;9); and 5-year-olds (mean age 5;4, range 5;0–5;8). Half the children in each
age group were female, half male. About two-thirds of the participating parents were
mothers and one-third fathers. The families who took part were typical of the ethnic mix
found in the Bay Area of northern California.
Each parent–child pair was seated at the end of a low table in a small room off a court-
yard at the school. Parents were given a picture-book where just one picture was revealed,
on the right-hand side, with each turn of a page. The pictures were centered on the page
(20 cm × 13 cm), with a single word printed in a small box right at the bottom of the
page. The parents heard the following general instructions, ‘We are really interested in
how children respond to being read to. So please read this book to your child, just as you
would at home. We’re going to record the session on videotape so we can transcribe it
later,’ and, as an apparent afterthought, we added, ‘Oh, and if you can, use the words at
the bottom of the pages,’ before they were shown where to sit for the recording-session
so the book would be visible on camera.
The book was designed to facilitate the presentation of 16 words expected to be unfamiliar
to most of the children. These words were drawn from four word classes nouns, verbs,
adjectives, and prepositions and chosen because they did not appear in vocabulary lists for
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254 First Language 30(3-4)
preschool children. (The words and their accompanying pictures are given in the Appendix.)
The pictures children saw, bound as a book, were presented in one of three random orders
(three different versions of the book), counterbalanced over children within each age group.
The nouns served as a control condition in that the forms of noun-offers and the kinds
of uptake children display in spontaneous conversation have already been well docu-
mented (Clark, 2007; Clark & Wong, 2002). Responses to the new nouns in this study
were compared to those offered in spontaneous exchanges, and proved to be highly sim-
ilar; they therefore served as a baseline for the other three parts of speech. That is, the
kinds of offers parents favor for verbs, adjectives, and prepositions should also be just
the kinds most likely to be used in spontaneous exchanges as well. The comparability of
the data on nouns reduced the probability that parents were devising special strategies for
the specific task they participated in.
Transcription and reliability
Each picture-book session was videotaped to record the interaction between parent and
child, and to allow for the transcription and coding of all the speech used in conjunction
with each page in the book. Sessions were filmed with a Canon Optura-pi digital video
camera, on a tripod, set to look over the shoulders of parent and child at the book and to
capture speech centered on the book. Audio-recording was enhanced with a Canon
DM-50 shotgun microphone, switched to record in front of the camera. Films were tran-
scribed using MediaTagger (a program developed at the Max Planck Institute for
Psycholinguistics), with independent tiers for adult and child speech.
Reliability of the transcriptions was established by a second transcriber for 5% of the
tapes. Overall agreement was high (at or above 95%), and disagreements were resolved
by discussion before coding. The transcripts of all the speech from each adult–child ses-
sion were then coded for such features as use of the target word, use of the target word
as a single-word utterance, additional uses of the target word during the exchange, greater
stress on the target (relative to other words in the same clause: this was established at the
time of transcription), and children’s repeats of the target word in the turn after the adult
introduced it.
Adults used the target words printed at the bottom of each page 95% of the time as they
‘read’ the picture-books to their children. They omitted them 10% of the time with
2-year-olds, 3% of the time with 3-year-olds, 4% with 4-year-olds, and 3% with 5-year-
olds. A few children already knew one of the target words, and some, mainly 4- and
5-year-olds, knew more than one. The analyses that follow are based on how adults pre-
sented each type of target word, and on how children responded.
In the exchanges between parents and children, parents typically took the lead but chil-
dren contributed more and more to the conversation about each picture as they got older.
Adults engaged their children with appeals to past experience (D’you remember . . . ?),
allusions to shared knowledge (We did something like this . . .), and general information
about the object or event in question. While 2-year-olds contributions were sometimes
minimal, mainly in the form of answers to adult questions, older children contributed
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Clark 255
actively to each exchange, bringing up relevant information, and relating what was new to
what they already knew.
Adult offers of target words
Did adults highlight the words they were asked to use in talking about each picture? And
did they do so across all four word-classes? The short answer is ‘yes.’ They used a vari-
ety of devices, typically in combination, to introduce the words from each word-class.
These devices included presentation frames, single-word uses, final position word order,
added stress, multiple uses of target terms, and linkage to known words.
Presentation frames. When adults offered unfamiliar words, they did so using a small
number of frames, with different ones favored for each word-class. Typical examples are
given in (6)–(9), with the new word underlined. In many cases, adults would first solicit
the child’s attention by asking a question such as ‘What’s that?,’ ‘You know what that
is?,’ or ‘What do you see?’ (see Estigarribia & Clark, 2007):
(6) Noun frames
a. Adult (to child 2;6.5): You know what? This part of the sailboat is called a
b. Adult (to child 3;8.3): That’s a SPINE.
As predicted, noun-offers typically appeared in deictic frames, with this or that, and
with the noun in utterance-final position with stress, as in (6). These frames are also
favored for new nouns in spontaneous conversation (Clark & Wong, 2002). In fact, most
of the adults were very consistent in how they introduced nouns, typically starting with
the whole and moving to a part (as in (6a)) or starting with the set of items (e.g., birds,
tools) and then taking up each subtype in turn. This is where children often contributed
too, by, for example, offering any terms for bird or tool types they already knew. Overall,
75% of the parents of the 2- and 3-year-olds used the same ordering of information on at
least three out of four occasions and often on all four, in their offers for nouns.
Verbs appeared to present a slightly more complex case. Adults generally introduced
transitive verbs in ‘general question+specific answer sequences, as in (7a), with contras-
tive stress added to the non-final verb in the answer clause. But they tended to present
intransitive verbs directly, with stress on the verb in final position, as in (7b):
(7) Verb frames
a. Adult: What’s that owl doing?
Child (2;6.14): He, that thing? (pointing to knitting)
Adult: He’s KNITTING a sweater.
b. Adult (to a child 2;7.9): The bird is–– CHIRPING [followed by chirping
That is, they took advantage of the fact that intransitive verbs can readily be used in phrase-
or utterance-final position in English and hence with utterance-final stress, while with transi-
tive verbs, they would opt for a question+answer format, in which they produced both question
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256 First Language 30(3-4)
and answer, with contrastive stress on the target verb in the answer. Again, they were consistent
in their choices of offer-frames, with 75% of the parents of 2- and 3-year-olds nearly always
(on three of four or all four occasions each) opting for the same frame across verbs.
They offered adjectives in predicative form, and tended to favor frames that presented
the adjective in utterance-final position, hence with stress, as in (8):
(8) Adjective frames
a. Adult (to child 2;6.5): He’s going s– up, up, up the mountain, very STEEP.
b. Adult: Some things are rough ’n some things are––
Child (4;7.26): Not rough.
Adult: Not rough? Another word for ‘not rough is SMOOTH.
As in the case of transitive verbs, the introductions sometimes also made use of con-
trastive lexical information, as in rough vs smooth in (8b). Here 67% of the parents (8 of
the 12 for both the 2- and the 3-year-olds) made use of final position in the predicate in
first presenting new adjectives. Parents preferred to first present unfamiliar adjectives in
predicate rather than attribute position by a ratio of 3:1 at age 2, and by 5:1 at age 3, thus
maximizing final position stress on the new terms.
Finally, the frames favored for unfamiliar prepositions showed that adults added stress,
often contrastive stress, and sometimes paused after producing the preposition as if it was
in fact utterance-final, before they continued with the rest of the prepositional phrase, as in
(9b), or followed the preposition on its own with a full prepositional phrase. In short, adults
highlighted prepositions with extra stress (generally by placing them in phrase-final posi-
tions) even though they don’t normally occur in final position or carry stress in English:
(9) Preposition frames
a. Adult: And what’s this?
Child (2;8.16): Teddybear.
Adult: Another teddybear and, they’re kinda sitting next to each
other, they’re BESIDE each other.
b. Adult: It’s under the umbrella or it’s––
Child (4;7.26): In the sand.
Adult: In the sand, it’s BELOW–– the umbrella.
To sum up, the introductions adults favored incorporated several highlighting options:
use of a small number of frames, placement of target words in final position, and use of final
or emphatic stress. Here, 79% of the parents of the 2- and 3-year-olds were consistent in
their introductions in three out of four or four out of four cases for unfamiliar prepositions.
The forms used with the two older groups were somewhat less consistent, for two reasons:
first, the older children contributed more to the exchange for each page and often derailed the
introduction of the new term by focusing on some other aspect of the target picture, and,
second, older children knew some of the words in each of the word-classes examined.
Single-word uses. Adults also used single-word utterances for highlighting. The propor-
tions of first uses that were single words are shown for each age in Table 1. They would
introduce words to each age group by using them first on their own before embedding them
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Clark 257
in a phrase or clause, but the four word-classes did not differ significantly overall, F(3,176)
= 2.38, NS. To check whether adults made use of more single-word presentations for forms
that would normally appear in final position, I also compared prepositions (canonically
non-final since they are always the head of their phrase) with nouns (canonically final in a
predicate), but the difference between them was not significant, t(1) = 1.89, NS.
Final position. Adults chose final position very frequently for all four word-classes in
presenting new words to their children, F(3,176) = 17.11, p < .0001. They did this sig-
nificantly more often for nouns, 66%, than for verbs, 52%, t(1) = 2.26, p < .02, or adjec-
tives, 51%, t(1) = 2.19, p < .03, and significantly more often for verbs and adjectives than
for prepositions, 27%, t(1) = 4.57, p < .0001, as shown in Table 2.
Added emphasis. Adults also made rather consistent use of stress to highlight target
words when they introduced them, regardless of their position in the utterance. This did
not differ overall with age, but adults tended to place stress on nouns, adjectives, and
verbs more often than on prepositions, as can be seen in Table 3. And, in their offers to
4- and 5-year-olds, they used emphatic stress less often on verbs than they had for
younger children. This could have been because the older children were in fact familiar
with some of the verbs in question.
Multiple uses. Finally, adults typically used each new term several times as they talked
about the relevant scene pictured on the page. Remember that they sometimes introduced
the new word first on its own, as a single-word utterance, and then repeated it in a full
phrase or clause. In addition, many of them used the new term several times in the course
of talking about the scene on the relevant page.
The average number of uses for words in each word-class, for each age, is shown in
Table 4. Interestingly, adults were more likely to repeat those parts of speech that are
Table 1. Percentage of single-word uses in adult introductions
Age Nouns Verbs Adjectives Prepositions
2s 17 18 28 12
3s 12 19 15 19
4s 19 28 20 16
5s 33 40 38 23
Mean 20 26 25 20
Table 2.
Percentage adult use of final position for each word-class, by age
Age Nouns Verbs Adjectives Prepositions
2s 60 54 50 15
3s 69 62 65 21
4s 75 52 54 33
5s 60 38 44 38
Mean 66 52 53 27
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258 First Language 30(3-4)
normally used in non-final position in phrases or clauses, and therefore without added
emphasis namely verbs, adjectives, and prepositions. This suggests that this type of
repetition offers another way to highlight unfamiliar terms for young children.
Links to known words. When adults introduced new words, they consistently linked them
to other terms from the same semantic domain, terms pertinent for talking about the
scene depicted. In (10), for example, the parent offers the noun jib in the context of other
information about sailing:
(10) Adult (talking about a picture Now this is the back sail [points], this is the
of a sailboat with two sails): front sail [points], and this [points at the front
sail again] has a special word to describe it.
D’you know what it is?
Child (3;6.20): I don’t know.
Adult: It’s called a JIB.
The semantic neighbor offered most frequently with jib was the noun sail, followed
by the more specific front-sail, mainsail, back sail, and, very occasionally, spinnaker.
They also produced a number of other sailing terms, as shown in Table 5, with more of
these offered the older the child being talked to.
To give an idea of what adult usage looked like, the terms adults used have been
divided into four or five tiers, depending on their frequency in parental speech. Larger
print, along with the actual numbers within each age group, in Tables 5–8 indicates that
more parents used that word or expression, with less frequent uses shown in succes-
sively smaller print-sizes. The patterns in Table 5 are representative of usage for that
word-class as a whole. The noun jib, for instance, first elicited general sailing terms,
Table 3. Percentage adult use of added stress for each word-class, by age
Age Nouns Verbs Adjectives Prepositions
2s 73 71 67 56
3s 75 75 73 60
4s 71 50 54 60
5s 77 56 69 50
Mean 74 63 66 56
Table 4.
Number of times adults produced target words by word class and age
Age Nouns Verbs Adjectives Prepositions
2s 2.50 3.92 2.71 2.25
3s 3.06 4.58 3.52 4.38
4s 2.52 3.98 3.08 2.75
5s 2.90 2.60 3.35 3.25
Mean 2.75 3.77 3.17 3.16
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Clark 259
with boat probably turning up the most often, then terms for other sails – main, main-
sail, spinnaker (all local contrasts for jib) and terms for other boat parts (rudder,
bow), and then other elements of sailing (wind, gaff-rig, motor). Most of the contrast-
ing terms here were nouns. The same pattern held for the other nouns adults introduced
at each age.
In (11), for a picture of hands holding a piece of wood and a carving tool, the parent
introduced a verbs, namely carve:
(11) Adult: This must be some wood [points], and he’s using that [points to
tool], to carve it. So that’s another word for cut.
Child (4;9.0): Cut (the) wood!
Adult: Cut wood.
Child: Yeah.
Adult: CARVING is cutting wood.
For this verb, adults offered verbs like cut and shape as near neighbors as well as
the more specific sculpt, scoop, shave off, and smooth out. Many adults also mentioned
the instrument used tool, knife, and chisel as well as the material, namely wood.
The range of terms used to each age-level with the verb carve is shown in Table 6.
When offering unfamiliar adjectives, many of them focused on other entities that the
adjective could apply to. In (12), the parent introduces the adjective steep, applied to a
picture of a man climbing a steep hill:
(12) Adult: They’re–, they’re– he’s climbing up a hill. It’s a STEEP hill
because it goes . . . high! It goes high. It goes really high really
fast. So it’s STEEP. Can you say steep? Steep.
Table 5. The noun JIB and its semantic neighbors
SAIL-30, FRONT-26,
Note: The numbers indicate how often parents used each neighbor of the target term within each age group.
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260 First Language 30(3-4)
Child (2;8.11): Steep!
Adult: Steep. Do you like steep hills? Do you remember– Do you
know we walked up some steep hills this morning on our
walk– when we were looking for rocks?
The most common neighbors here were the verb climb, the nouns mountain, hill, and
slope (other referents that could be described as steep), and the adjective flat. Parents
also often presented direct contrasts between steep and flat as they talked about surfaces
one could walk on.
Table 7 summarizes the terms linked to steep. When used to 2- and 3-year-olds, this
adjective was usually accompanied by the nouns hill and mountain, and the verb climb
or climb up. Offers of neighboring adjectives, like flat, big, tall, high, and low, increased
in number with age, perhaps reflecting children’s growing skill in using different
dimensional adjectives (e.g., Clark, 1972; Ebeling & Gelman, 1994; Rogers, 1978), as
well as their greater knowledge about physical properties of the terrain, and about
activities like hiking and climbing.
Finally, the exchanges in (13) and (14) illustrate what parents typically did in intro-
ducing prepositions. They usually offered near-neighbors that were also close in mean-
ing to the target term.
(13) Adult (to child 2;5.13, for a picture of This is a ball, BELOW... an umbrella.
an umbrella and a ball on the beach): If you’re under something it means
you’re BELOW it
Table 6. The verb CARVE and its semantic neighbors
WOOD-8, FACE-5, CUT-5,
Note: The numbers indicate how often parents used each neighbor of the target term within each age group.
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Clark 261
(14) Adult (to child 3;8.16, same picture): Okay so, the ball is where in––
< repair> compared to the umbrella?
You know?
Child: Under.
Adult: Under, and another word for under
is... BELOW.
The most frequent neighbors offered here were the preposition under, the preposi-
tional phrase on the ground (for the location of the ball), and the adjective low. But
compared to the other word-classes, adults supplied remarkably few neighbors for
prepositions. Where they could, they appeared to rely on near-synonyms with similar
syntactic functions, but as Table 8 reveals, the number of related terms they used was
rather limited compared to the networks of terms evoked by unfamiliar nouns, verbs,
or adjectives.
With prepositions, the terms adults mentioned most frequently were those for the two
entities being related in space. In fact, many adults produced only the two nouns for these
and the target preposition for the target relation. However, with children aged 3 and
older, parents sometimes offered contrasting relations in space as they tried to elicit a
preposition, as in (15):
(15) Adult (to child 3;4.29, after both have Now, where’s the ball? Up high,
looked at the picture and the child down low, around, above, below,
has identified both a ball and an umbrella): the umbrella?
Table 7. The adjective STEEP and its semantic neighbors
HILL-22, UP-18, CLIMB-15, HIGH-9
UP-25, CLIMB-17,
Note: The numbers indicate how often parents used each neighbor of the target term within each age group.
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262 First Language 30(3-4)
About one-quarter of the parents did produce a few related terms for below, mostly its
opposite, above. They also produced the adjective pair high and low, and other preposi-
tional pairs like up and down, or under and on top of, or over, all terms relevant to 4- and
5-year-olds’ knowledge of terms for spatial relations (Clark, 1972).
In summary, parents situate words from different word-classes rather differently
when they link them to a semantic domain. They tend to link nouns to other nouns, and
verbs to other verbs. But with adjectives, they focus more on terms for the kinds of enti-
ties the adjective can be applied to, and with prepositions, they focus almost entirely on
the terms for the locatum and location (or figure and ground) that are being related. For
all four word-classes, however, they go far beyond simple use of the target word alone.
On occasion, parents also appealed to past events as they were explaining what a new
word referred to. For example, in (16) and (17), the adults use such a link when trying to
explain what steep means:
(16) Adult (having already used ‘It’s a steep
hill,’ ‘It’s steep,’ ‘Do you like steep hills’): Do you rememb–
Child (2;8.11): Mm-hm.
Adult: Do you know we walked up some
steep hills this morning on our
walk? When we were looking for
(17) Adult: Oh. This hill is very– Remember when we were climbing
those rocks? It was– steep.
Table 8. The preposition BELOW and its semantic neighbors
ON-2, SAND-1, BEACH-1, LOW-1,
HIGH-2, LOW-1, IN-1, DOWN-1,
DOWN-2, ON-1, OVER-1, NEXT TO-1,
Note: The numbers indicate how often parents used each neighbor of the target term within each age group.
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Clark 263
Child (3;8.16): No. no, it was– really– hard to get– up.
Adult: Mm-hm.
Child: ’Cause it was steep.
Adult: ’Cause it was steep, right. Very good.
Child: We saw a lizard.
Appeals to experience like these present children with another route for linking new
words to domains and terms they already know (see also Veneziano, 2001).
Finally, parents also offered further information to underline the meaning of the new
term, as in the exchanges about sails in (18) and (19):
(18) Adult (having introduced the There’s another sail that goes way out here,
term jib, now pointing at the and it’s usually bright coloured, and when the
picture of the boat): wind’s blowing really really hard– It’s a neat
sail. It’s called the spinnaker. So you’ve got the
spinnaker, the jib, and the main.
Child (5;0.15): Oh.
(19) Adult (having introduced jib and having explained that it’s the front sail)
Child (4;8.1): But what’s the back sail called?
Adult: You wanna know something? I don’t know. It doesn’t say. It just
says what the front sail is, in front. Maybe it’s called a mainsail.
But I’m not that sure.
Child: Or maybe it’s the sail of the country it is.
Adult: Well that could be. It could be an American sail or an Australian
sail. But the front one now is the jib.
Child: Or a sail from Ja– Japan?
Adult: It could be, ’cause you know different countries learn how to
sail boats in different ways. So some countries the sails are
square, and some countries there are two, and sometimes there
are three. And, you know, people just kept experimenting and it
had a lot to do with how the wind blows in some countries and
how the water behaves in others.
In summary, parents typically do far more than just present children with an unfamil-
iar word. They link the new word to related terms in the relevant domain; they offer other
terms that contrast with it directly, and they appeal to past experiences as they situate the
word for their children. All these tactics appear designed to help children embed new
terms into appropriate places in their increasing complex networks of lexical meanings.
Child uptake
In everyday conversation, children repeat unfamiliar terms they are offered directly about
50% of the time. In fact they repeat new words significantly more often than they repeat new
information (Clark, 2007). So the extent to which young children take up unfamiliar terms
is one measure of the attention they pay to those words when they are offered. Repeating the
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264 First Language 30(3-4)
target word in the next turn is one indication that children are attending to the adult’s utter-
ance: it suggests they have identified the probable referent in context (at the joint focus of
attention) and have made sufficiently good note of the word to try to reproduce it.
Other indications that children are attending include acknowledgments with a form like
uh-huh, mmh, yeah, or oh. These, though, suggest a lesser degree of attention, with children
registering that the adult has said something but without offering evidence that they have
taken in the term actually used. (This would not preclude their having taken it in, however:
they could have added it to their representations for comprehension without giving overt
evidence of having done so.) Another indication that they are attending is their contribution
of subsequent utterances relevant to the topic under discussion. Such comments suggest,
for example, that they have grasped which domain the new term belongs to.
Child repeats. The percentage of repeats, either as single words or embedded in longer
phrases, is shown by word-class and age in Table 9. As in earlier studies, children often
repeated the words highlighted by the adults in their offers. They did so more often as
they got older, with a rise from 38% at age 2 up to 69% of the time at age 5. The 4- and
5-year-olds in particular repeated the verbs, adjectives, and prepositions on average 69%
of the time overall, and repeated nouns only slightly less often, at 64%. Overall, chil-
dren’s rates of repetition in the present study matched those for new nouns, and their
repetitions appeared to have the same function – acknowledging the adult’s offer (Clark,
2007; Clark & Bernicot, 2008).
Other evidence of attention. Even when children didn’t repeat the target term offered,
they sometimes acknowledged it with forms like mh, uh-huh, or yeah. For the four terms
used in illustration earlier – jib, carve, steep, and below – 2-year-olds responded with an
acknowledgment in the next turn after presentation 22% of the time. The rest of the time,
they either repeated the target term, or said nothing at all. For 3-year-olds, the rate of
acknowledgments dropped to 15%, and from age 4 on, to 4%. In short, repeats were
much more frequent as immediate responses to the unfamiliar words (see Table 9).
To what extent did children’s follow-up utterances indicate that they had successfully
identified the relevant domain for the new word? Notice that the context, namely the
picture they were looking at, provided some help, but the picture on its own, while iden-
tifying the general conceptual domain in question a sailing-boat, someone carving
wood, someone climbing a hill, a beach scene doesn’t automatically lead children to
retrieve whatever words they already know that might be the most pertinent for that
occasion. I therefore looked at the terms contributed first by the child rather than the
adult in exchanges that followed the introduction of jib, carve, steep, and below. Again,
these terms were representative of their word-class.
Two-year-olds tended to make only minimal contributions to the exchange. Five of
the 12 children labeled the picture of a boat as ‘boat,’ and one also contributed both ‘out-
side’ and ‘on water.’ Two tried to identify the activity in relation to carve, with ‘They’re
painting’ and ‘A spoon [the chisel] going over like dis.’ And five identified the ball or the
umbrella in the beach scene targeting below. (None of them contributed to the initial
discussion of the picture for steep.)
Three-year-olds did somewhat better. Eight of the 12 identified the boat as a ‘boat’ or a
‘sailboat,’ or, in one case, as a ‘ship.’ They asked about other sails, ‘Is this a front sail too?,’
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Clark 265
identified the shape as a ‘triangle, and converted the new noun jib into a verb: ‘You’re jib-
bing? For the activity of carving, two focused on the making of something, and two on the
material affected (‘wood,’ ‘but it’s harder [than pla-doh]’). Five contributed ‘climb’ or
‘climbing’ in relation to steep, while two others contributed ‘hill and ‘hard to get up.’ Ten
of them mentioned ‘ball’ and five ‘umbrella’ for the beach scene (target word below), and
two mentioned ‘sand.’ They also introduced ‘high,’low, ‘down,’ and ‘on the sand.
Four- and 5-year-olds made contributions much like those of the 3-year-olds for the pic-
ture of the boat (jib), usually identifyinga boat or ‘sailboat,’ and in a couple of cases adding
the further terms ‘raft’ and ‘bow.’ In the case of carve, though, 5-year-olds contributed a
greater range of verbs for the activity: ‘touch, ‘cut, ‘make,’ ‘chiseling,’ ‘hitting,’ ‘shaving,’
and ‘scratching, as against the 4-year-olds verbs: ‘make,’ ‘put,’ ‘cut,’ and hammer.’ With
steep, again, 4- and 5-year-olds made similar contributions. They used verbs like ‘climb,’
‘climb up, ‘slip, ‘slip down, ‘pull down, ‘tie on’; nouns like ‘hill and ‘mountain,’ and
qualified these as ‘hard, ‘rocky,’ ‘dirty,’ ‘thick, and ‘too high. Lastly, with below, there were
contributions from nine 4-year-olds and ten 5-year-olds. They used ‘ball’ (or ‘beachball’),
‘umbrella,’sand,’ ‘down, and ‘under, and they listed the colors on the ball and umbrella.
In summary, from age 3 on, children contributed substantially to the talk about each
picture, spontaneously labeling the referents depicted, and suggesting interpretations of
what was happening. Younger children tended to follow the adult’s lead on what was
happening in each picture, but by age 4, children began to offer elaborations and even
alternatives as they pursued the topic for each page in the book.
General discussion
Parents flag unfamiliar words in picture-book reading sessions. They do this in sev-
eral ways, exploiting strategies they also use in introducing new words in the course
of conversation. They highlight words syntactically by using a small number of standard
syntactic frames for each word-class. They favor final position in the phrase or
clause for the new word, a position that receives clause- or utterance-final stress.
And they add extra stress when the target word is not in final position. These strate-
gies all contribute to highlighting the unfamiliar word, while offering clear clues to
its word-class as a noun, verb, adjective, or preposition (see also Clark, 1998;
Clark & Wong, 2002; Hall, Burns, & Pawluski, 2003; Manders & Hall, 2002). The
syntactic frames not only identify the word-class of the new word, but provide cer-
tain clues to the type of meaning it may therefore carry (see Fisher, Klingler, &
Song, 2006; Kako, 2005, 2006).
Table 9. Percentage of child repeats of target words by part of speech and age
Age Nouns Verbs Adjectives Prepositions Mean
2s 46 33 44 27 38
3s 42 54 52 52 50
4s 56 81 65 65 67
5s 71 69 65 69 69
Mean 54 59 54 53
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266 First Language 30(3-4)
Semantically, adults link new words to others that are already known to the children.
For example, they connect new words to superordinate or subordinate terms in the same
domain (see also Callanan, 1990; Shipley, Kuhn, & Madden, 1983). They offer con-
trasting information in the form of other terms from the same semantic domain, e.g.,
smooth vs rough for adjectives, or above vs below for prepositions (see Clark, 1987,
1990; also Shipley & Kuhn, 1983). And they invoke the vocabulary for the setting
depicted on each page, effectively setting the scene linguistically for the picture by call-
ing up relevant terms and expressions. This in turn provides children with information
about when, as well as how, to use the new term (see Rogers, 1978; Wilkins, 2002).
Adult reliance on terms that collocate with the new word offers children information
about how that word can be combined with others – adjectives with nouns, for instance,
or verbs with nouns, and prepositions with nouns (see Bowerman, 2005; Goodman et al.,
1998). This provides yet another source for inferences about possible meanings. Finally,
adult uses of nouns with nouns, as in ‘a tern is a kind of bird’ or ‘awls are tools’ presents
children with further hierarchical and perspectival information about lexical organiza-
tion and use (Callanan & Sabbagh, 2004; Clark, 1997).
Children take up some of this information from an early age. For example, having just
turned 2, they are able to make inferences about set-membership from single exposures
to a statement that ‘an X is a kind of Y’ in a word-learning task where both X and Y are
new words (Clark & Grossman, 1998; see also Clark, Gelman, & Lane, 1985; Waxman
& Senghas, 1992). By age 3 (and probably earlier), they can make use of information
about part of speech in interpreting new words shown with a referent-picture, correctly
identifying a verb as referring to the action depicted, a mass noun as referring to the
substance affected by the action, and a count noun as referring to the instrument used
(Brown, 1957; see also Dockrell & McShane, 1990; Hall & Graham, 1999; Hall, Quantz,
& Persoage, 2000). Finally, children make use of collocations, for example, between a
known verb and an unfamiliar noun, to make inferences about the possible meaning of
the unfamiliar noun (Goodman et al., 1998).
More generally, children can make use of positive information about language and
language use to change their own developing systems. They are attentive to adult refor-
mulations, where adults repeat child utterances with the errors repaired, and they often
ratify such repairs directly by repeating the corrected form or phrase (Chouinard & Clark,
2003; Clark & Bernicot, 2008; Saxton, 2000; Saxton, Kulcsar, Marshall, & Rupra, 1998).
Finally, of course, children are continuously exposed to new words in the general course
of family conversations, regardless of age (e.g., Beals, 1997; Weizman & Snow, 2001).
These findings suggest that models of language acquisition need to take account of all
the sources of information available to children. Models need to be able to characterize
those inferences about probable meanings that are licensed in context as well as those
licensed by what adults offer in conversation along with a new word: the kinds of linguis-
tic information they supply about the referent object, action, property, or relation, and
how they relate that information to other terms from the same domain. They also need to
track children’s attention to new words, whether children acknowledge or ratify them
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Clark 267
after hearing them offered, and the extent to which children, in their turn, try to relate a
new word to others they already know.
In short, children discover word meanings in the course of interaction. As Bowerman
and Choi (2001, p. 505) pointed out, ‘Non-linguistic perceptual and conceptual predis-
positions . . . do not, then, shape children’s semantic categories directly, but only in
interaction with the semantic structure of the language being acquired (emphasis
added). But for children to become sensitive to the relevant semantic structure, they must
interact with more knowledgeable speakers parents, caretakers, and older siblings.
While Brown (1968) proposed that interaction in discourse provided ‘the richest data for
the discovery of grammar,’ the present findings support the view that interaction itself
plays a vital role in children’s discovery of the basic elements in language as well – the
meanings of individual words.
Appendix: Pictures and target words
Each version of the book used contained 16 pictures with one target word included on
each picture-page. The pictures and the relevant target word (in italics) were:
1. Adjectives
a. a curved-belly jug – smooth
b. set of six colored crayons – purple
c. a man walking up a hill – steep
d. rocks in a riverbed – stony
2. Verbs
a. human hands holding a piece of wood and an awl – carve
b. cowboy on a moving horse – gallop
c. an owl on a branch holding knitting needles and wool – knit
d. a bird with its beak open – chirp
3. Prepositions
a. two bears seated side-by-side – beside
b. an umbrella leaning over a ball on sand – below
c. a small ball with seven jacks scattered round it – among
d. a ceiling fan above a bed – above
4. Nouns
a. a barrel cactus – spine
b. three different sea birds – tern
c. a boat with sails – jib
d. a hammer, an axe, and an awl – awl
This research was supported in part by grants from the National Science Foundation (SBR97–31781),
the Spencer Foundation (199900133), and the Center for the Study of Language and Information,
Stanford University. I thank the staff of the Bing Nursery School and all the parents and children who
participated; Michelle M. Chouinard, Meghan Everett, Elizabeth Liebert, and Natalie W.-M. Wong for
help with data collection, and Caroline Bertinetti for help with some of the data analysis.
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268 First Language 30(3-4)
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... The results from previous corpus-based and experimental studies give rise to a puzzle: how do children learn to interpret or as inclusive, when they mostly hear it being used as exclusive? One way to solve this puzzle is "logical nativism" (Crain, 2012;Crain & Khlentzos, 2008, 2010. This view proposes that the language faculty constrains the connective meanings entertained by the learner to those used in classical logic: negation, conjunction, and inclusive disjunction. ...
... While it is not clear what feedback children receive while learning function words like or, it is clear that they do not have access to the kind of labeled data in our model. Future work should revise this aspect of the model and incorporate the kinds of feedback children actually receive (Chouinard & Clark, 2003;Clark, 2010). ...
... Third, once children have learned enough isolated and contextdependent mappings of meanings, they can also make use of linguistic definitions. For example, children may learn from their parents that below is "another word for under" or that carving is "cutting wood" (see Clark, 2010). Gleitman et al. (2005)'s "syntactic bootstrapping" offers a similar developmental account with emphasis on the role of syntactic structure in learning the meaning of "hard words" like mental verbs (e.g., think and know). ...
What are the constraints, cues, and mechanisms that help learners create successful word-meaning mappings? This study takes up linguistic disjunction and looks at cues and mechanisms that can help children learn the meaning of or. We first used a large corpus of parent-child interactions to collect statistics on or uses. Children started producing or between 18-30 months and by 42 months, their rate of production reached a plateau. Second, we annotated for the interpretation of disjunction in child-directed speech. Parents used or mostly as exclusive disjunction, typically accompanied by rise-fall intonation and logically inconsistent disjuncts. But when these two cues were absent, disjunction was generally not exclusive. Our computational modeling suggests that an ideal learner could successfully interpret an English disjunction (as exclusive or not) by mapping forms to meanings after partitioning the input according to the intonational and logical cues available in child-directed speech.
... They link a new word in some way to other words the child already knows, and they supply added information about the current referent (a step notably absent from experimental studies of word acquisition). This added information commonly consists of information about inclusion or class membership, as well as further information about parts and properties, characteristic noises, ways of moving, functions, ontogeny, habitat, and history, along with terms for other entities in the same domain (see Callanan 1990;Clark & Wong 2002;Clark, 2007Clark, , 2010Clark & Estigarribia 2011). Such information provides quite extensive material on which children can base further inferences about the possible meaning of a new word. ...
... In this, they also attend to the fact that any new, unfamiliar, word contrasts in meaning with other words already known, in particular with words belonging to the same domain (Clark 1987(Clark , 1990(Clark , 1995(Clark , 2018. Each piece of additional information offered provides a basis for inferring the nature of the contrast in meaning between a new word (e.g., owl ) and other related words like duck and bird already known to the child (see Chi & Koeske 1983;Callanan 1990;Johnson & Mervis 1994;Clark 2002;Clark & Wong 2002;Clark 2007Clark , 2010Clark & Estigarribia 2011;Peters & Yu 2021). ...
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For both children and adults, communicating with each other effectively depends on having enough knowledge about particular entities, actions, or relations to understand and produce the words being used. Speakers draw on conventional meanings shared with their interlocutors, but do they share every detail of word meaning? They need not have identical, or fully specified, representations for the meanings of all the terms they make use of. Rather, they need only have represented enough about the meanings of the words used by another speaker to understand what is intended in context on a particular occasion. Reliance on partial meanings is common in both children and adults. More detailed, shared, representations of word meanings for a domain depend on acquiring additional knowledge about that domain and its contents.
... Claramente se evidencia que los segmentos, cuando se encuentran en inicio silábico, son aprendidos en grupos de edades inferiores a las codas (Tabla 15), esto también es visto De otra parte, en lo concerniente a la frecuencia según el tipo de palabra, referida a la cantidad de veces que un sonido aparece en palabras frecuentes pertenecientes al vocabulario de un niño, se sabe que estos aprenden con mayor facilidad los sustantivos que los verbos, adjetivos y adverbios 84-89 y que las palabras con las que están más en contacto desde edades tempranas, pertenecen a las categorías semánticas de familia, animales, frutas, ropa, juguetes y partes del cuerpo 86,90 . Además, durante la interacción adulto-niño, en la mayoría de las expresiones de los adultos a la hora de enseñar nuevas palabras, el 60% a 80% de ellas, son nuevos sustantivos y las restante verbos, adjetivos y preposiciones 91,92 . Esto es importante, porque no solo la frecuencia de percepción auditiva del sonido es relevante para su aprendizaje, sino que también, la práctica de producción de este sonido 52 La rótica vibrante /r/ es otro segmento que merece ser analizado por separado por dos motivos. ...
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Resumen La adquisición, desarrollo y aprendizaje de los sonidos del habla del español es un tema en constante estudio, debido a lo complejo que resulta, tanto por la colecta de la información, dado lo amplio de la población que habla español, como por el establecimiento de las estrategias de evaluación, criterios de medición y respectiva categorización. El presente trabajo buscó establecer datos referenciales del aprendizaje del componente fonético-fonológico en español, para ello se siguió una estrategia asociativo-transversal evaluándose 926 menores de Perú y España entre 2,6 años a 6,11 años, utilizándose la Prueba de Evaluación Fonética-Fonológica mediante tareas de repetición de sílabas, repetición de palabras y denominación de imágenes. Los resultados presentan los porcentajes de aprendizaje de los sonidos consonánticos, grupos consonánticos centrales y laterales y el de las vocales y secuencias vocálicas distribuidos por edades. Palabras clave: Desarrollo fonológico, Fonética, Fonología, Trastorno de los sonidos del habla, habla. Abstract The acquisition, development and learning of the sounds of Spanish speech is a subject of constant study due to the complexity of information collection, regarding the large population that speaks Spanish, and for the establishment of evaluation strategies, measurement criteria and respective categorization. The present work sought to establish reference data on learning the phonetic-phonological component in Spanish, for that an association-transversal strategy was followed, evaluating 926 minors from Peru and Spain between 2.6 years and 6.11 years old, using the Phonetic – Phonology Evaluation Test, through the tasks of repetition syllables, repetition words and naming images. The results present the percentages learning of consonant sounds, central and lateral consonant groups, the vowels and vowel sequences distributed by age.
... Parents' speech during each play trial was fully transcribed and divided into utterances, defined as segments of speech separated by periods of silence lasting at least 400 ms (Pereira, Smith, & Yu, 2014;Suanda, Smith, & Yu, 2016a;Yu & Smith, 2012). A number of researchers have argued and empirically demonstrated that all talk about an object has the potential to inform young children's object-name learning, not just those utterances containing the object's name (Clark, 2010;Frank et al., 2013;Messer, 1980;Schwab & Lew-Williams, 2017;Suanda et al., 2016b;Sullivan & Barner, 2016). For example, consider the two-utterance sequence, "where's the zeebee" "there it is." ...
Toddlers learn words in the context of speech from adult social partners. The present studies quantitatively describe the temporal context of parent speech to toddlers about objects in individual real-world interactions. We show that at the temporal scale of a single play episode, parent talk to toddlers about individual objects is predominantly, but not always, clustered. Clustered speech is characterized by repeated references to the same object close in time, interspersed with lulls in speech about the object. Clustered temporal speech patterns mirror temporal patterns observed at longer timescales, and persisted regardless of play context. Moreover, clustered speech about individual novel objects predicted toddlers' learning of those objects' novel names. Clustered talk may be optimal for toddlers' word learning because it exploits domain-general principles of human memory and attention, principles that may have evolved precisely because of the clustered structure of natural events important to humans, including human behavior.
This study analyzes the L1-acquisition of discourse like and its pragmatic functions in American English based on the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development component of the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES). The data show that discourse like is already present in the speech of 3- and 4-year-old children and that even very young children employ like to perform distinct pragmatic functions with specifying uses being dominant until age 8;5. The analysis also shows a notable increase in discourse like as children mature, mainly driven by an increase in attention-directing like , the dominant function of discourse like among children older than 8;5. Conditional inference trees show that the use of discourse like by children is affected by a child’s age, the situation type and the frequency of discourse like in caregivers’ input. Children younger than 7;10 use discourse like only rarely in formal contexts as well as in informal contexts if their caregivers do not use discourse like frequently. However, children use discourse like substantially more if they are older than 7;10 or, in informal contexts, when their caregivers use discourse like frequently. The changes in frequency and the functional shifts in the use of like around the ages of 7 to 9 is interpreted to show that peers become more important as linguistic role models when children enter school. The results thus substantiate research which suggests that the pragmatic and social meanings of discourse markers are learned alongside linguistic constraints rather than after the form has been acquired.
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By age 5, children readily understand, produce, and interact with language. In their first year, they attend to sounds and sound sequences, and a few words. Next, they communicate with gestures and words, adding words to memory for recognition and for targets in production. By age 2, they produce word-combinations, adding complexity with inflections and grammatical morphemes. By age 3 or 4, they produce relative clauses, temporal, conditional, and causal clauses, and many question types. At all ages, conversational interaction offers practice and feedback on what they understand and say, and simultaneously exposes them to further uses of language.
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This study compares the interactions of Estonian mothers and their 2-year-old children across three interaction contexts. At meals, mothers and children were the least talkative, and mothers used the least conversation-eliciting utterances. During bookreading and puzzle-solving situations, mothers were significantly more concerned with eliciting talk from children and directing their attention. A comparison of the current data with data collected in 1992 (Tulviste & Raudsepp 1997) demonstrated that the pattern of Estonian mothers’ speech had not changed at meals, whereas maternal speech during puzzle solving was not as highly directive as it was in 1992. The results may reflect the considerable economic and societal changes that have taken place in Estonia during the last decade.
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In early language acquisition, adults offer many new words and constructions. Children take up these offers. To signal that they have noticed new words, they often repeat them, either on their own (singleword utterances) or incorporated into their next utterance. This paper explores some specific Junctions of repetition in acquisition - for adults, drawing attention to new forms, for children signalling they have noticed something, and adding information to common ground. These functions are important in maintaining the dialogue in adult-child exchanges.
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This study compared the sequential structure of mother-child conversation during joint picture book reading in Japanese and American dyads with children between 12 and 27 months. Although there were commonalities such as increased maternal elaborative information-asking in response to children’s labelling with children’s vocabulary growth, there were substantial differences. Japanese children produced labelling following maternal labelling more than American children, while American children produced labelling following information-asking more than Japanese children. Japanese mothers responded to children’s labelling with interpersonal utterances more than American mothers, while American mothers responded to labelling with elaborative information-asking more than Japanese mothers. Interaction in American dyads generally followed an instruction model, while interaction in Japanese dyads reflected aspects of an osmosis model.
A corpus of nearly 150,000 maternal word-tokens used by 53 low-income mothers in 263 mother-child conversations in 5 settings (e.g., play. mealtime, and book readings) was studied, Ninety-nine percent of maternal lexical input consisted of the 3,000 most frequent words. Children's vocabulary performance in kindergarten and later in 2nd grade related more to the occurrence of sophisticated lexical items than to quantity of lexical input overall. Density of sophisticated words heard and the density with which such words were embedded in helpful or instructive interactions, at age 5 at home, independently predicted over a third of the variance in children's vocabulary performance in both kindergarten and 2nd grade. These two variables, with controls for maternal education, child nonverbal IQ, and amount of child's talk produced during the interactive settings, at age 5, predicted 50% of the variance in children's 2nd-grade vocabulary.
Two studies investigated adults' use of prosodic emphasis to mark focused words in speech to infants and adults. In Experiment 1,18 mothers told a story to a 14-month-old infant and to an adult, using a picture book in which 6 target items were the focus of attention. Prosodic emphasis was measured both acoustically and subjectively. In speech to infants, mothers consistently positioned focused words on exaggerated pitch peaks in utterance-final position, whereas in speech to adults prosodic emphasis was more variable. In Experiment 2, 12 women taught another adult an assembly procedure involving familiar and novel terminology. In both studies, stressed words in adult-directed speech rarely coincided with pitch peaks. However, in infant-directed speech, mothers regularly used pitch prominence to convey primary stress. The use of exaggerated pitch peaks at the ends of utterances to mark focused words may facilitate speech processing for the infant.
In order to use the words “big” and “little” appropriately, adults use 3 kinds of contexts: normative (the size of the object is compared to a stored mental representation), perceptual (the object is compared to another physically present object of the same kind), and functional (the object is judged with regard to its intended use). In 3 experiments, we examined how flexibly children switch from one context to another. 2–4-year-olds judged a series of everyday objects as “big” or “little.” To answer correctly, children had to judge each object twice, once in a normative context and once in a perceptual or functional context. Results showed that switching from one context to another was not inherently difficult, even for 2-year-olds. However, the direction of switch was important: children throughout the age range tested switched easily from a normative context but made errors when asked to switch to a normative context. We suggest that the normative context differs from the perceptual and functional contexts in that it is unmarked, and that unmarked contexts are accessible only when no other context has been recently experienced. When context is marked more explicitly, children shift flexibly among different meanings.
Until recently, a long-standing assumption in the field of child language acquisition research was that parents do not correct the grammatical errors of their children. While consensus now exists that potentially corrective responses are often supplied, controversy persists as to whether the child can identify and exploit such information in practice. To address these issues, this study adopts the contrast theory of negative input as a framework for analysis (Saxton 1995). In this theory, two distinct kinds of corrective input are identified, termed negative evidence and negative feedback, respectively. The corrective potential of each category was investigated by examining the immediate effects of each on the grammaticality of child speech. A longitudinal corpus of naturalistic data (49 hours) from a single child was analysed with respect to 11 grammatical categories. The effects of negative input were compared with two non-corrective sources of input, namely positive input and adult move-ons. It was found that grammatical forms were more frequent in child speech following negative evidence and negative feedback than either of the two non corrective sources of input. In light of these and related findings, it is argued that corrective input may well prove important in explanations for how the child eventually retreats from error to attain a mature system of grammar.