Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Précis of How Children Learn the Meanings of Words

Paul Bloom a1
a1 Department of Psychology Yale University New Haven, CT 0652


Normal children learn tens of thousands of words, and do so quickly and efficiently, often in highly impoverished environments. In How Children Learn the Meanings of Words, I argue that word learning is the product of certain cognitive and linguistic abilities that include the ability to acquire concepts, an appreciation of syntactic cues to meaning, and a rich understanding of the mental states of other people. These capacities are powerful, early emerging, and to some extent uniquely human, but they are not special to word learning. This proposal is an alternative to the view that word learning is the result of simple associative learning mechanisms, and it rejects as well the notion that children possess constraints, either innate or learned, that are specifically earmarked for word learning. This theory is extended to account for how children learn names for objects, substances, and abstract entities, pronouns and proper names, verbs, determiners, prepositions, and number words. Several related topics are also discussed, including naïve essentialism, children's understanding of representational art, the nature of numerical and spatial reasoning, and the role of words in the shaping of mental life.

Key Words: cognitive development; concepts; meaning; semantics; social cognition; syntax; theory of mind; word learning.