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Language Acquisition and Learning in Children

Language acquisition and learning in children is a process which begins in early childhood and is impacted by the social surroundings. The development and use of words in language in young children is a natural phenomenon and is a social process which occurs in the context in which children are placed. When children begin the process of using conventional language, the first words and utterances they make are based on their responses of the novel aspects of the surroundings in which they learn. For instance, when a child sees a dog, the mother excitedly utters the sentence, “Look, a dog!” pointing to the dog so that the child can see and understand the meaning of the word dog. Thus, the mother, through her knowledge and excitement, plays a vital role in conveying to the child, a new word ‘dog’ and its meaning through visual pointing.
Studies related to learning the meanings of new words by children have identified several mechanisms which enable children to deduce the meanings of the words. Some of these mechanisms which lead children to infer the meanings of novel words include lexical-specific constraints (Markman, 1989), syntactic form (Hall & Graham, 1999), conceptual knowledge (Soja et al., 1991), mechanisms of attention and memory (Smith et al., 1996) and intentionality of adults (Akhtar and Tomasello, 2000).
Thus it is apparent that the mechanisms involved in the process by which children acquire language through new words and meanings, is subject to immense investigation and researchers have conducted several experiments to understand the role and importance of others’ intentions in the process of the learning of meanings of new words among children (Akhtar, Carpenter & Tomasello, 1996).

This paper aims to analyze whether children need a sophisticated understanding of others’ intentions (Akhtar et al., 1996) when they learn the meanings of new words or whether they use their own pragmatic cues in the process of understanding the meanings of new words (Samuelson and Smith, 1998).
The manner in which children infer the meanings of new words has been under much scrutiny and researchers assert that this process occurs in children due to their “understanding of people’s minds” (Diesendruck et al., 2004). Research in this field presents controversial results with researchers debating about the perceptions and communicative abilities of young speakers, as a result of being attuned to their listeners (Golinkoff, 1993). In the process of acquiring new meanings of words, children take their cues not only from their previous knowledge and memory and cognition, but also the context in which the meaning of words is presented to them. Baldwin (1993) notes that children between the ages eighteen and twenty four months, respond to “gaze direction” while Tomalsello, Strosberg & Akhtar, (1994) have noted that children respond to “affective expression” in order to gauge the “communicative intents” of the speaker (Diesendruck et al., 2004).
Akhtar, Carpenter & Tomasello (1996) have validated through research that children can be responsive to the intent of others during phases of their early language learning and production phases. This thesis is based on the increasing number of studies which propose that by the time children are two years old, they are “sensitive to the intentions underlying others’ behavioral and verbal expressions” and therefore begin to interpret behaviors of people, not mechanically, rather psychologically (Carpenter et al., 1998; Rosicky and Tidball, 2001).

In their study, Akhtar et al. (1996) conducted two experiments with children using control condition and experimental condition, the results of which correspond with their belief of the social-pragmatic influence of two year old being sensitive to the knowledge of others. Akhtar et al., (1996) suggest that “it is plausible to assume that children make use of this sensitivity in their comprehension and learning of language”. In the first of the two creative experiments, the authors gave the two-year-old children, three objects to play with, in the presence of adults including two experimenters and the mothers. In order to familiarize the objects but keep them nameless, they were referred to with pronouns like ‘it’, ‘this’ and ‘that’ after which they were placed in a box.

The experiment was continued with an experimenter grasping the box and exclaiming in an excited tone “Look, I see a modi!” followed by further exclamations like “A modi!”, “I see a modi in there!” This would instigate the children to recognize the novel object among the unknowns due to the excitement and novelty of the fourth unknown object. Through this experiment, the authors tried to prove that the children would be able to recognize and distinguish the fourth object from the other three due to the novelty and the excitement of the adults when they refer to the new object. 
The authors Akhtar et al., (1996) also conducted a second experiment in which they introduced a “gazer” as a new object with the first part of the experiment being conducted identically like the first one and children played with the objects with the experimenters and their mothers. The deviation was the second part in which one experimenter and parent left the room following which the new object was introduced to the children. After the introduction of the new object, the adults returned back to the room after which the experimenter exclaimed, “Look, I see a gazzer!” after which the parent also exclaims to bring the attention of the children to the gazzer. Following this enthusiasm, the children assume that the gazzer is the fourth object being referred, with which they were familiar but their mothers were unfamiliar, since they had never heard their mothers mention it.

Both the experiments demonstrate that children display sensitivity to novelty in discourse during the early stages of language production and that they use the perceptions of others, such as the excitement of their mother and the experimenter. However, this claim of the authors has been alternatively interpreted by Samuelson and Smith (1998) who conducted similar experiments to “seek evidence for a third possible account of children’s smart word learning” which essentially focuses on the process of learning rather that the mechanisms which instigate learning. Samuelson and Smith (1998) hypothesize that young children learn meanings of new words through the general attention and memory processes and not because of the intentions of the adults being communicated to them.

In their article “Memory and attention make smart word learning….” the authors build the premise around their central idea that the processes which enable children to learn words, including “perceiving, remembering, and attending” could actually be “sufficient in themselves” to allow the learning process to occur. The authors performed identical experiments performed by Akhtar et al. (1996) with one important alteration in the procedure of playing with the object in a novel and unique location at a table on the other side of the room by all the participants. The findings were similar to Akhtar et al’s (1996) experiments due to which Samuelson and Smith (1998) concluded that children learn and acquire the meanings of new words through the general cognitive processes including memory and attention and not the knowledge of the “communicative intent” of others. Through this article and the experiments, the authors Samuelson and Smith (1998) counter the claim made by Akhtar et al., (1996) that smart word learning in children could actually result from the regular and sometimes dumb cognitive processes of children and smart word learning in children occurs simply by memory and attention mechanisms.   

In response to this alternative claim by Samuelson and Smith (1998), Diesendruck et al. (2004) report that Samuelson and Smith (1998) did not simply “manipulate the context of presentation of the objects” but did it in an “intentional and relevant way” by making the experimenter move to the table to show the children the fourth object, which sent cues to the children that “the fourth object was special to the experimenter.”

Diesendruck et al. (2004) refute the claim of Samuelson and Smith (1998) by conducting experiments to prove their premise that two year olds children “have a fully developed understanding of others’ beliefs” and are therefore “sensitive to the intentions underlying others’ behavioral and verbal expressions”. By conducting similar experiment like Samuelson and Smith (1998), Diesendruck et al. (2004) presented their findings that the responses of two year olds varied substantially in accordance with the “nature of a speaker’s action’ in addition to the correlation between the speaker and the action performed. These results conclude that children base their ideas and meanings of new words on the intention of the speakers.

Thus through the three articles in which a claim had been proved (Akhtar et al., 1996), then competed (Samuelson and Smith, 1998)and then proved again (Diesendruck et al., 2004), it is evident that children do in fact need an understanding of the intention of others and this understanding plays a vital role in the process of learning new words. Thus, children learn new words and their meanings with numerous processes and mechanisms including memory, intelligence, cognitive processes and others’ intents in their process of acquiring the meanings of novel words during their language developmental stages. 


Akhtar, N., & Tomasello, M. (2000). The social nature of words and word learning. In R. Golinkoff & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Becoming a word learner: A debate on lexical acquisition (pp. 115-135). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Akhtar, N., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (1996).  The role of discourse novelty in early word learning. Child development, 67, 635-645. 

Carpenter, M., Akhtar, N., & Tomasello, M. (1998). Fourteen- to 18-month-old infants differentially imitate intentional and accidental actions. Infant Behavior and Development, 21, 315-330.

Diesendruck, G., Markson, L., Akhtar, N., & Reudor, A. (2004). Two-year-olds’ sensitivity to speakers’ intent: an alternative account of Samuelson and Smith. Developmental Science, 7, 33-41.

Golinkoff, R. M. (1993). When is communication a "meeting of minds"? Journal of Child Language, 20, 199-207.

Hall, D. G., and Graham, S. A. (1999). Lexical form class information guides word-to-object mapping in preschoolers. Child Development, 70, 78-91.

Markman, E. M. (1989). Categorization and naming in children. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Moses, L. J., Baldwin, D. A., Rosicky, J. G., & Tidball, G. (2001).  Evidence for referential understanding in the emotions domain at 12 and 18 months. Child Development, 72, 718-735.

Samuelson, L., & Smith, L. (1998). Memory and attention make smart word learning: an alternative account of Akhtar, Carpenter, and Tomasello. Child Development, 69, 94-104. 

Smith, L. B., Jones, S. S., & Landau, B. (1996).  Naming in young children: A dumb attentional mechanism?  Cognition, 60, 143-171.

Soja, N., Carey, S., & Spelke, E. S. (1991). Ontological categories guide young children's inductions of word meaning: Object terms and substance terms. Cognition, 38, 179-211.

Tomasello, M., Strosberg, R., & Akhtar, N. (1996). Eighteen-month-old children learn words in non-ostensive contexts. Journal of Child Language, 23, 157-176.