Two toddlers are learning the word "cup." One sees three nearly identical cups; the other sees a tea cup, a sippy cup and a Styrofoam cup. Chances are, the second child will have a better sense of what a cup is and -- according to a new University of Iowa study -- may even have an advantage as he learns new words.
This might not strike you as such a great surprise, but it's a study that sheds a bit of light on the processes children go through as they develop a sense of what a word means and the limits to which they can stretch that word's range of meanings. The linguist and child language expert, Jean Aitchison, talks about children acquiring words and their meanings as going through a process of labelling, packaging and network building. As you can probably see from this research, showing children a range of different objects, all with similar characteristics, seems to help them with the packaging and network building elements of their language acquisition.
The research goes on to suggest that a knock-on effect of this early boost to lexico-semantic acquisition is an enhanced ability to generalise. So, when children were later asked to identify objects that they hadn't seen before (or types of objects that they had seen in slightly different forms) they were better able to label them:
When tested on unfamiliar objects that fit into the categories they'd been taught -- such as a bucket they'd never seen before -- kids in the variable group performed better. This showed an ability to generalize the knowledge. "We believe the variable training gave them a better idea of what a bucket was. They discovered that the buckets were all alike in general shape, but that having a handle or being a particular texture didn't matter," Perry said. "In contrast, the children exposed to a tightly organized group of objects developed such strict criteria for what constitutes a bucket that they were reluctant to call it a bucket if it was different from what they'd learned."