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Cognition. 1999 Dec 7;73(2):135-76.

Human simulations of vocabulary learning.

Author information

  • 1Department of Psychology, Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, University of Pennsylvania, 3815 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, USA.

Abstract

The work reported here experimentally investigates a striking generalization about vocabulary acquisition: Noun learning is superior to verb learning in the earliest moments of child language development. The dominant explanation of this phenomenon in the literature invokes differing conceptual requirements for items in these lexical categories: Verbs are cognitively more complex than nouns and so their acquisition must await certain mental developments in the infant. In the present work, we investigate an alternative hypothesis; namely, that it is the information requirements of verb learning, not the conceptual requirements, that crucially determine the acquisition order. Efficient verb learning requires access to structural features of the exposure language and thus cannot take place until a scaffolding of noun knowledge enables the acquisition of clause-level syntax. More generally, we experimentally investigate the hypothesis that vocabulary acquisition takes place via an incremental constraint-satisfaction procedure that bootstraps itself into successively more sophisticated linguistic representations which, in turn, enable new kinds of vocabulary learning. If the experimental subjects were young children, it would be difficult to distinguish between this information-centered hypothesis and the conceptual change hypothesis. Therefore the experimental "learners" are adults. The items to be "acquired" in the experiments were the 24 most frequent nouns and 24 most frequent verbs from a sample of maternal speech to 18-24-month-old infants. The various experiments ask about the kinds of information that will support identification of these words as they occur in mother-to-child discourse. Both the proportion correctly identified and the type of word that is identifiable changes significantly as a function of information type. We discuss these results as consistent with the incremental construction of a highly lexicalized grammar by cognitively and pragmatically sophisticated human infants, but inconsistent with a procedure in which lexical acquisition is independent of and antecedent to syntax acquisition.

PMID:
10580161
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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