Conceptual Development

The fact that children can grasp the meaning of a word without explicit instruction, and in a variety of circumstances, suggests that there is a significant role played by preexisting or ongoing developing conceptual representations. During the early phases of word learning, studies demonstrate how specific conceptual developments at this stage are closely related to the acquisition of particular words. For example, infants develop the ability to retrieve hidden objects within a few weeks of acquiring words such as "gone" that encode the concept. In some children the words were acquired before the concept, in others the reverse was found. This suggests that at this early phase, while conceptual development can influence semantic development, it is also the case that semantic development can influence conceptual change. Thus, the relationship between language and conceptual development, or more generally between language and thought, is highly complex, with each system placing constraints on the other and both dependent on the social environment for their elaboration in development.

During the toddler years, objects tend to be named at the so-called basic object level (e.g., dog or car) rather than at the subordinate (e.g., dalmatian and Mercedes) or superordinate (e.g. animal and vehicle) levels. Objects within the same category at the basic object level tend to share perceptual and functional features, and they do not overlap with related semantic categories. Thus, this level may be the most useful for children for both functional and cognitive reasons. Parents also have been shown to name objects for children at the basic object level and this too might explain why this is the preferred level for children's early words.

Once a new word is learned it is quickly generalized to new contexts. Much of the focus of research on word meanings has been on the extension of a word. At this stage, children will sometimes overextend the meaning of a word, broadening the use of a term beyond its semantic boundaries. Typical examples include calling all women "Mommy" or using "ball" to name any round object. Overextension errors may be made on the basis of functional or, more frequently, perceptual similarity, or they may involve an associative complex of features. Another kind of extension error that is not so easily noticed occurs when the child underextends the use of word, not using a word to label an appropriate referent. Underextension errors tend to be noted at earlier stages of lexical development, whereas overextension errors are more typical of this period, after the naming explosion.

The most widely accepted view of what guides the acquisition of word meanings at this stage is the child's conceptual representations. The initial representation may be of a particular referent to which new examples are compared. Later, this semantic representation becomes more abstract and may be composed of a composite image or set of features for a prototype or best exemplar. This theory can explain both under-extension and overextension errors; however, it is a theory of lexical development that is most usefully applied to the child's acquisition of names for concrete objects but not to other kinds of word classes.

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