Children learn new words at various stages and through various techniques. While many of these techniques include flashcards and picture books, a new study suggests that children—and, in fact, all new language learners—can build up concrete vocabulary from interacting with a complex learning environment, not just repeated exposure to words in isolation.
Many language-development researchers believe children learn a new word gradually, taking a general meaning from encountering it multiple times in various contexts and gradually arriving at a more specific meaning. By contrast, the researchers for the new study argue that people instead make a best guess about a new word’s meaning based on the context in which they initially encounter it, and hold onto the meaning unless it is clearly found to be wrong.
“Where people were learning gradually, they were learning the wrong thing. They got more and more abstract descriptions in order to cover all the examples,” said Lila R. Gleitman, a study co-author and a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “But little children don’t learn that way at all; they learn concrete before the abstract; they learn doll before they learn toy.”
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