Journal of Child Language

Pragmatic directions and children's word learning 1

a1 Stanford University
a2 Yale University


The present study tested the hypothesis that children as young as two use what adults tell them about meaning relations when they make inferences about new words. 18 two-year-olds (mean age 2;2) and 18 three-year-olds (mean age 3;2) learned two new terms (a) with instructions either (i) to treat one term as a superordinate to the other, or (ii) to replace one term with another; and (b) with no instruction given about how two new words might be related. Children were attentive to both kinds of instructions or pragmatic directions, and made use of them in their word-learning. When they received no instruction relating the two new words, they resorted to a range of coping strategies to assign and relate meanings to each other. These findings support the view that children's learning of new word meanings is guided by the pragmatic directions adults offer.

(Received October 23 1996)
(Revised June 2 1997)

c1 Address for correspondence: Eve V. Clark, Department of Linguistics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2150, USA (e-mail:


1 This research was supported in part by the Center for Research on Language and Information, Stanford University. We thank the teachers and, especially, the children at Bing Nursery School for their collaboration in our study. We are grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.