Effect of varying situational contexts on verb meaning acquisition in young children

Date of Completion

January 2000


Language, Linguistics|Psychology, Developmental




This study examined how 3 and 5-year-old children initially interpreted novel verbs and how they modified these interpretations with additional experience. Children heard four novel verbs in conjunction with videotaped events of a person performing an action to achieve a result. Verb meaning interpretations were assessed froth response patterns across generalization tests, where children indicated whether or not the verbs could be applied to new events where the action, result, or action and result were changed. The majority of response patterns were consistent with one of five meaning categories, suggesting that children adopt hypotheses about the meanings of novel verbs. When the verbs were heard in a single training context, 3-year-olds showed preferences for conservative and action-and-result interpretations and 5-year-olds showed preferences for result and action-and-result interpretations. Conservative interpretations were indicated when children failed to extend the verbs to any event that was different from the training events. When the novel verbs were heard in multiple contexts where the actions (or results) systematically varied while the result (or action) remained constant, children's interpretations tended to be concordant with the training contexts. An age effect was found, where 3-year-olds made more concordant action interpretations and 5-year-olds made more concordant result interpretations. These results suggest that the children test hypotheses and adopt hypotheses that are concordant with their experience with the verbs. A hypothesis testing strategy was proposed where children initially adopt narrow interpretations of verb meanings and then move to progressively broader interpretations as they are exposed to the verbs in other contexts. The use of response patterns to index children's verb meaning interpretations was suggested to be a valid and potentially useful methodology. ^