Learning Words: A Gradual Process

Learning how to speak is an amazing process that begins in infancy. It takes a number of years before completion –– that is, before children can use language in a near-adult fashion. This is the process of language acquisition. Language acquisition is often regarded as complete once children have mastered much of the grammar of the language and use that appropriately. This point is generally reached during the teen years. But one aspect of their language remains incomplete –– learning the meanings of unfamiliar words. No matter what your age, you continually encounter new words, with unfamiliar meanings. And you then have to find out what those words mean. 

Yet most discussions within linguistics, the study of language, appear to assume that adults have acquired all the meanings they need, so their acquisition of word meanings is complete. But when we look more closely at how adults deal with unfamiliar words, the more they look like young children. More specifically, adults also start out with only partial meanings, and their acquisition of new word meanings is gradual and may remain incomplete.

  In my research, I argue that the process of acquiring the meaning of a new word is very similar for young children and for adults. This process is a gradual one that takes place over the years for speakers of all ages. Adult speakers of a language do not know the normal or conventional meanings of all the words they encounter. On occasion, they hear unfamiliar words and then have to work out what those words mean and hence how to use them appropriately. This process takes time and observation. Adults must observe how other speakers use those words and track what the physical and conversational contexts are. 

  Take young children: they start learning a language before they are one year old. And they begin to produce their first words between 12 and 24 months of age. These words are often what we call over-extended. This means that children, compared to adults, may refer to many more kinds of objects with one word than an adult would.  For instance, they might take a word like dog and use it to refer to dogs, cats, sheep, and squirrels. This suggests that these children have acquired only part of the meaning for dog. For instance, maybe they have only acquired that dog includes ‘four-legged’ and/or ‘mammal-shaped’. If this is all they know, then indeed a sheep can be referred to as a dog because it is ‘four-legged’. However, when children are asked to look at pictures of animals and point to the dogs, they point correctly only to pictures of dogs. They seem to understand the word dog and just have a hard time using it correctly when they talk.  So their over-extensions reflect a strategy when speaking that consists of using the nearest available word that might work while their vocabulary is still very limited in size. When two-year-olds acquire more of the meaning of a word like dog and also learn to produce other nearby words like cat and squirrel, their earlier over-extensions vanish. Instead, they now use dog to refer to dogs, cat to refer to cats, and squirrel to refer to squirrels, just as adults do.

  As children learn more words, the way they use them tends to follow the way adults use them. They learn what the norms, or conventions, are for each word. For example, they will come to use the word chair for all kinds of chairs, but not for beds or stools.  They learn to use apple for apples, but not for oranges or peaches. And they learn to use swing for swings, but not for the slides or see-saws also found in the playground. Conventions like this are what make language work as a system for communication. It is important that every speaker adhere to the same conventions so they can understand each other.

  However, children still continue to start with only a partial meaning for a new word, so the way they speak early on is different from the way adults do. When this happens, children reveal the still incomplete nature of whatever meaning they have acquired so far. Mismatches in the way words are used provide evidence of the gradual nature of how children acquire word meanings. They need exposure to adult uses in a variety of contexts in order to establish just what the conventional meaning of a word is. The conventional meaning of a word consists of what it refers to, as well as how it contrasts with other nearby words related to it in meaning.  Compare, for example, the words dog, puppy, bark, growl, bite, bone, collar, leash, and kennel.  These words are all related in meaning; they belong to what we call the same ‘semantic field’. But adding words to a semantic field takes time and this depends on more learning about different members of that field and just how they are related to each other.

  It is quite customary for us to think of children needing to learn meanings for words as their language develops. At the same time, we don’t usually think about how often adults encounter unfamiliar words, or how they cope when they do so. For example, most fields of knowledge rely on a specialized vocabulary. An adult who is an avid chef has quite a different set of vocabulary from an adult who is an avid skier. An avid birder knows terms for many kinds of birds, just as a botanist knows terms for many kinds of plants. This holds for adults in any specialized academic area like medicine, law, chemistry, astronomy, or seismology, as well as in such areas as gardening, birding, riding, carpentry, or folk-dance. Each field relies on a specific set of vocabulary that people working in or interested in that field need to know. While we probably all have a fairly good command of the meanings of much of our everyday vocabulary, as adults we also frequently encounter words from unfamiliar domains. For example, when we start learning a new skill such as sailing, we are immediately faced with words for different parts of a boat (e.g., tiller, mast, bowsprit), for different knots (e.g., clove-hitch, bowline, reef knot ), for different kinds of ropes (jib-sheet, halyard, downhaul), for sails (mainsail, jib, genoa), for wind-directions (windward, leeward), for locations on the boat (starboard, port, aft), and so on. 

  Each new area of knowledge that we encounter as adults requires that we make inferences in context about the possible meanings for unfamiliar words. We can then check up on those inferences as we encounter further uses from other speakers. Or, when quite baffled, we can ask explicitly what an unfamiliar word means. Just like young children, adults rely on the same kinds of inferences, drawn from the physical and conversational context of the exchange, as well as any common ground they share with those they are speaking with.  Like young children, adults make use of what they can see in the immediate context as they search for what an unfamiliar word might mean, and they too link new words they encounter to words they already know. This process of  working out the meanings of new words and relating them to other words in the relevant field takes time.

  Adults, just like young children, can often manage with only partial meanings. They may know, for example, that willow, beech, and oak are terms for kinds of trees. But that may be all they know. They are quite unable to identify instances of each tree, the leaves found on each type of tree, or the bark characteristic of each type. In much the same way, many adult speakers may know that wren, cuckoo, and phoebe are kinds of birds, but nothing beyond that. They are unable to identify which bird is which when shown pictures. These are just two examples of partial knowledge for word meanings but this is often enough to follow a conversation. However, it is not enough when fuller understanding –– say the ability to identify the actual kind of bird in question –– is at stake. 

  In short, as speakers learn more about a field, they must learn the meanings of the words used for elements in that field. The more they learn, the more complete their knowledge becomes about the meanings of the relevant words. But since most speakers have only a passing understanding of many fields, their knowledge about the meanings of the words used in those fields typically remains incomplete throughout adulthood. They have only partial knowledge of some conventional meanings there, in much the same way children do when they start learning their first language. In short, acquiring word meanings is a lifelong process. Remember this when you embark on a new hobby, start learning some new skill in carpentry or cooking, or take up a new sport such as pickleball.

Written By: Dr. Eve Clark

Academic Editor: Neuroscientist 

Non-Academic Editor: Pet Care Attendant

Original Paper

• Title: A gradualist view of word meaning in language acquisition and language use.

• Journal: Journal of Linguistics 

• Date Published: 2 August 2022

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