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How Two- and Four-Year-Old Children Interpret Adjectives and Count Nouns

D. Geoffrey Hall, Sandra R. Waxman and Wendy M. Hurwitz
Child Development
Vol. 64, No. 6 (Dec., 1993), pp. 1651-1664
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development
DOI: 10.2307/1131461
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1131461
Page Count: 14
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How Two- and Four-Year-Old Children Interpret Adjectives and Count Nouns
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Abstract

We examined the role of object kind familiarity (i. e., knowledge of a count noun for an object) on preschoolers' sensitivity to the relation between a novel word's form class (adjective or count noun) and its reference (to a material kind-property or to an object kind). We used a forced-choice match-to-target task, in which children learned a word for one object (e. g., a metal cup), and then chose between 2 other objects. One was from the same object kind but a different material kind (with different related properties, such as color and texture; e. g., a white plastic cup); the other was from a different object kind but the same material kind (with the same related properties; e. g., a metal spoon). In Experiment 1, children learned either a count noun (e. g., "This is a zav") or an adjective (e. g., "This is a zav one"). Within each form class, we crossed the familiarity of the referent object kind (familiar and unfamiliar) with the age of the children (2- and 4-year-olds). The principal finding was that in interpreting an adjective, 4-year-olds were more likely to choose the object sharing material kind with the target if the target was familiar than if it was unfamiliar. No such familiarity effect was evident among 2-year-olds. In Experiment 2, we employed a more unambiguously adjectival frame (e. g., "This is a very zav-ish one"), and replicated the results of Experiment 1. We interpret the results in terms of 2 proposed word learning biases: one that learners initially expect any word applied to an unfamiliar object to refer to a (basic-level) kind of object, and a second that learners prefer words to contrast in meaning. We consider several interpretations of the observed age difference.

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