studies. For instance, children and word gavagai to refer, not to rabbits,
Primer adults were exposed to a new word but to time-slices of rabbits — to
in the context of a measuring game entities that only exist for the
with six novel objects. The word was instant that the word is used? Or
Word Learning introduced in passing — ‘Let’s use that the native isn’t talking about, as
the koba to measure which is Quine puts it, ‘all and sundry
Paul Bloom longer… We can put the koba away undetached parts of rabbits’?
now’. Children weren’t asked to Indeed, how could the linguist
Word learning is a controversial area, repeat the new word and weren’t know that gavagai is a name at all, as
but there are two facts that tested to ensure that they heard it. opposed to the native clearing his
everyone agrees about. The first is They were tested a full month later, throat, or making a noise to warn the
that words really do have to be by bringing out the same objects and animal away, or saying the
learned. Regardless of how much of asking them to ‘Show me the koba’. equivalent of ‘Look!’ or ‘I’m
conceptual structure and linguistic Even 3-year-olds choose the correct bored!’.
knowledge is innate, the specific object over half of the time, far Quine used this example to
links between sounds (or signs) and better than chance. Furthermore, defend a skeptical position about
meanings must be determined on there were no age differences — language — that there really is no
the basis of experience. No matter 3-year-olds did just as well as adults. such thing as the meaning of a word.
how intelligent a British baby is, for Further studies have found similar But contemporary scholars in word
instance, she has to learn that dogs abilities even in 2-year-olds. learning have used it to support a
are called ‘dogs’, that sleeping is different moral: Since children do
called ‘sleeping’, and so on. The problem of word learning solve these problems of reference
The second agreed-upon fact is What precisely is so impressive and generalization, this suggests
that children are strikingly good at about this ability? There is good that they are somehow constrained
this sort of learning. Children utter reason to believe that it is or biased to favor some
their first words by 12 months of impressive since, as far as we know, interpretations over others. For
age, are relatively proficient at word no species others than humans can instance, in the gavagai situation,
learning by 16–18 months, and learn words and certainly no children, as well as adults, will tend
eventually come to learn new words computer has ever been construed to take the word as naming the
at a rate of well over ten new words that can do so. The problem of word entire object. They are not limited
per day. learning is surprisingly deep, and to an object interpretation, however.
Children’s first words include the reason for this was most In other situations they can
personal pronouns (me), proper famously demonstrated by the entertain non-object interpretations
names (Mommy), prepositions (on), philosopher W.V.O. Quine, who of a new word, which is a capacity
adjectives (big), verbs (want), and gave the example of a linguist necessary in order to learn
many classes of nouns, including witnessing a rabbit scurry by, and adjectives (such as ‘white’), verbs
those referring to whole objects hearing a native say ‘Gavagai’. It (such as ‘jumping’), and so on.
(dog), substances (water), parts turns out that there is an infinity of
(finger), habitual activities (nap), and logically possible meanings for this How is the problem solved?
abstract notions (story). While new word gavagai. It could refer to There are several cognitive
children sometimes get confused rabbits, but it could also refer to the systems that work together to make
about the precise meaning of word, specific rabbit named by the native, word learning possible. Some of
serious mistakes almost never occur. or to any mammal, or any animal, or these involve memory–word
This successful word learning any object. It could refer to the top learning and require the capacity to
occurs even in conditions in which half of the rabbit, or its outer encode, store, and access arbitrary
children are not taught words in any surface, or to rabbits but only those mappings; in this case, between
non-trivial sense, such as when that are scurrying; it could refer to sounds (or signs) and meanings.
children are abused and neglected. scurrying itself, or to white, or to There are also conceptual
furriness. The linguist could capacities. In order to learn words
Minimal cues exclude some of these for kinds of objects, properties, and
Given how many words children interpretations through further actions, say, the child has to have
come to know (about 10,000 words questioning and further experience some non-linguistic understanding
by age 6), one would expect them to with the word, but some of what such words mean. One
be able to learn words in very interpretations are harder to reason why children will never
minimal circumstances. This exclude. How could the linguist assume that gavagai means time-
expectation is born out by several know that the native isn’t using the slices of rabbit is because these are
R6 Current Biology Vol 11 No 1
not natural hypotheses for a word ‘toma’ referred to. In another study, understanding of the beliefs and
learner to entertain — while an adult used a novel verb to declare intentions of other people, and a
categories like rabbit and animal are. her intention to perform an action sensitivity to syntax. An act as
A further system involves (e.g. ‘I am going to blork!’), seemingly simple as a 2-year-old
children’s appreciation of the mental proceeded to do an action learning the word rabbit draws upon
states of other people, what is ‘accidentally’ (saying ‘Whoops!) many of the capacities that are
sometimes called ‘naïve psychology’ and then performed another action, central to the human mind.
or ‘theory of mind’. There is with satisfaction (saying ‘There!’
abundant evidence that children with a pleased expression). Suggestions for further reading
will take a word as referring to a Children connected the verb with 1. Baldwin DA, Moses LM: Early
understanding of referential intent and
given object if and only if there is the action the speaker seemed attentional focus: Evidence from
evidence that the speaker intended satisfied with, not the accidental language and emotion. In Children’s Early
to refer to that object. If an 18- one. Such studies indicate that Understanding Of Mind: Origins and
Development. Edited by Lewis C, Mitchell
month-old hears a novel label as she young children infer the intention of P. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. 1994: 133-156.
is playing with a novel toy, she will the speaker (through attention to 2. Bloom P: How Children Learn the
only assume that the word is a name cues that include line-of-regard and Meanings of Words. Cambridge, MA: MIT
for the toy if the label is spoken by emotional indications of 3. Gleitman LR: The structural sources of
someone who is also attending to satisfaction) when determining the word meaning. Lang Acquisition 1990,
the toy. If she just hears a referent of a new word, for both 1:3-55.
4. Markman EM: Constraints children place
disembodied voice naming the nouns and verbs. on word meanings. Cognitive Sci 1990,
object as she is looking at it (e.g. ‘A Finally, even young children 14:57-77.
dawnoo! There’s a dawnoo!’), the attend to the syntax of a word when 5. Markson L, Bloom P: Evidence against a
dedicated system for word learning in
word is not mapped onto that determining what the word means. children. Nature 1997, 385:813-815.
object.) The classic study showing this was
Another study tested babies in a done by Roger Brown, who showed Address: Department of Psychology, Yale
context in which they were given preschoolers a picture of a strange University, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-
one object to play with while action being performed on a novel 8205, USA.
another object was put into a bucket substance using an unfamiliar
that was in front of the object. One group of children was
experimenter. When the baby was told ‘Do you know what a sib is? In The editors of Current Biology welcome
looking at the object in front of her, this picture, you can see a sib’ correspondence on any article in the
the experimenter looked at the (count noun syntax), a second group journal, but reserve the right to reduce
object in the bucket and said a new was told ‘Have you seen any sib? In the length of any letter to be published.
All Correspondence containing data or
word, such as ‘It’s a modi!’. 18- this picture, you can see sib’ (mass
scientific argument will be refereed.
month-olds looked at the noun syntax), and a third group was Items for publication should either be
experimenter and redirected their told ‘Have you seen sibbing? In this submitted typed, double-spaced to: The
attention to what she was looking at, picture, you can see sibbing’ (verb Editor, Current Biology, Elsevier
in this case, at the object in the syntax). The preschoolers tended to Science London, 84 Theobald’s Road,
bucket. And when later shown the construe the count noun as referring London, WC1X 8RR, UK, or sent by
electronic mail to
two objects and asked to ‘find the to the object, the mass noun as firstname.lastname@example.org
modi’, children assume that the referring to the substance, and the
word refers to the object the verb as referring to the action.
experimenter was looking at when Subsequent research has found that
she said the word — not the object syntactic cues can help children to
that the child herself was looking at. learn words belonging to a range of
More sophisticated intentional different ontological categories, and
capacities are displayed by 24- might play an especially important
months olds. In one study, an adult role in how they learn the meanings
announced her intention to find an of abstract verbs such as ‘thinking’
object — ‘Let’s find the and ‘receiving’.
toma!’ — and then picked up and Research to date suggests that
nonverbally rejected (by frowning) children learn words through a set
two other objects before picking up of diverse capacities, including
a third object and smiling. Despite memory, an appreciation of the
the temporal gap, children inferred categories and individuals that make
that this third object was what up the external world, an