The Mental Lexicon. Children’s Acquisition of Lexical Meaning

Term Paper, 2019

11 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Mental Lexicon
2.1 Defining the Term Mental Lexicon
2.2 The Organization of Information

3. The Acquisition of Meaning
3.1 How Children Acquire Meaning
3.2 The Development of Children’s Mental Representations

4. Conclusion

5. List of References

1. Introduction

[…] let us see what the little explorer has to do when trying to use verbal sounds with their right meanings. […], we shall find that huge difficulties beset his path, and that his arrival at the goal proves him to have been in his way as valiant and hard-working as an African explorer. (Sully 1897: 31)

Everyday conversation requires most people to use several thousands of words in the course of an average day while most of the time, people appear having relatively little difficulty in bringing the corresponding terms to their minds. Yet, speakers of a language are mostly unaware of the complex system allowing them to cope with these words and to use them appropriately. When learning a new language, however, adults are likely to reconsider their view on the human word-store, especially, when observing a three-year-old child using a for them difficult-to-learn language effortlessly (O’Grady 2005: 1). How is it possible that children acquire lexical meaning of thousands of words even before they are able to dress themselves properly?

When thinking about the question one might assume the learning of meaning of words as a simple task, imagining a word learning situation where the child is looking at a storybook while one of the parents is naming the depicted object by its respective name. However, delving a little deeper into the child’s understanding of words as symbols and the task of linking these linguistic units with their meanings, it becomes obvious that the child faces a fairly difficult task in developing a “semantic system from first words and concepts, to [the] complex adult system” (Styles & Plunkett 2011: 51).

In order to understand how children acquire lexical meaning, this term paper focuses on the development of children’s mental lexicon and how children manage to store words in their mind. Therefore, some general information on the mental lexicon will be given by first, defining the term mental lexicon and after this, examining how the information in the human word-store is organized. Next, the acquisition of word meaning will be discussed by presenting a thought experiment from Quine (1960) in order to show how children acquire the mental lexicon. After that, the development of children’s mental representations is described by looking at the three different levels of use and understanding children face when learning new words. Based on these results, a final conclusion is drawn.

2. The Mental Lexicon

2.1 Defining the Term Mental Lexicon

The “nature of the human word-store” (Aitchison 2003: 1), also referred to as the mental lexicon, is “a collection of information about words and similar linguistic expressions in a language” (Murphy 2010: 3). Therefore, the mental lexicon can be regarded as an organized and active storage system representing meaningful linguistic expressions of a language, which are called lexemes (Murphy 2010: 3). For each lexeme appropriate information is collected, which, taken in their entirety, form a lexical entry (Murphy 2010: 5). This information is based on “associations between pronunciations, meanings, and grammatical properties” (Murphy 2010: 5) that were learned from other members of the particular speech community (Murphy 2010: 5). Thus, the lexicon is organized into several lexical entries often being compared to the structure of a dictionary as it collects all information on a headword in one entry (Murphy 2010: 5).

In answer to the question where the mental lexicon is, there are two linguistic approaches taking different perspectives on the vocabulary of a language (Murphy 2010: 4). On the one hand, some traditional approaches claim that the lexicon is part of a speech community considering the lexicon as “a collection of anything and everything that is used as a word or a set expression by the language community” (Murphy 2010: 4). On the other hand, other linguistic approaches focus on lexis as an integral part of a language speaker’s mind (Murphy 2010: 4). However, both views on the lexicon are interrelated as the “speakers of a language must aim to have reasonably similar ways of using and understanding the words they know” (Murphy 2010: 4). Therefore, current linguistic approaches to the mental lexicon mostly find a balance between the two different perspectives (Murphy 2010: 5).

2.2 The Organization of Information

In order to explain the structure of the mental lexicon, a comparison with the structure of that of a dictionary is often used, as the term lexicon already contains this implication (Aitchison 2003: 10). However, there is only little similarity between words in the human mind and words in “book dictionaries” (Aitchison 2003: 10), concerning both content and organization (Aitchison 2003: 10).

Regarding the content of a book dictionary, it “contains a fixed number of words which can be counted” (Aitchison 2003: 11), whereas the mental lexicon is variable as life-long construction and conversion processes take place involving both pronunciation and meaning of words (Aitchison 2003: 12).

In terms of the organization of information, the mental dictionary and book dictionaries differ in so far as “book dictionaries standardly list words in alphabetical order” (Aitchison 2003: 11) while the order in the mental lexicon “will straightforwardly not be alphabetical” (Atchison 2003: 11) although it may in fact be partially organized in regard to “initial sounds” (Aitchison 2003: 11). However, the organization of information in the mental lexicon is rather based on “other aspects of word’s sound structure, such as its ending, its stress pattern and the stressed vowel” (Aitchison 2003: 11) and also considers the meaning of words for the arrangement in the mind (Aitchison 2003: 11).

But how exactly are the words related to one another? According to many traditional “models of network organization” (Styles & Plunkett 2011: 52), the mental lexicon can be considered as “an interconnected system” (Aitchison, 2003: 84) in which each lexeme is acting as a “discrete node, with semantic relationships forming connections between nodes” (Styles & Plunkett 2011: 52). One lexical network model of this type is known as the Spreading Activation Model of Semantic Memory by Collins and Loftus (1975), characterizing each lexeme as an individual node linked to other nodes by relationships “through which activity can flow” (Styles & Plunkett 2011: 52). This activity flow from the original word can result in “partial pre-activation” (Styles & Plunkett 2011: 52) of related words from the same semantic field which then results in a “more efficient retrieval” (Styles & Plunkett 2011: 52).

Many researchers mostly agree on this general picture of the mental lexicon being presented as some type of network, but, however, disagree on how the particular network is organized (Aitchison 2003: 84). This disagreement results in different models of network organization, which can, however, not be discussed in more detail due to the limited extend of the term paper.

Although these models “successfully capture many adult lexical processing effects” (Styles & Plunkett 2011: 51), they do not sufficiently explain how newly learned words might be embedded or how the mental lexicon is actually acquired by children (Styles & Plunkett 2011: 52).

3. The Acquisition of Meaning

3.1 How Children Acquire Meaning

In order to understand how children acquire the mental lexicon, one needs to consider that there are two quite different perspectives on children’s acquisition of terms that refer to the mind (Astington & Peskin 2004: 60). On the one hand, researchers follow the assumption that “children are working out word-referent relations” (Astington & Peskin 2004: 60), which means that linguistic expressions are defined as a means for the mental representation of objects. Therefore, children’s task is to map “mental terms onto mental concepts” (Astington & Peskin 2004: 65). Other researchers, however, assume that children are learning how to use words by determining the role that words play in various situations (Astington & Peskin 2004: 65). Thus, words are learned in context and meaning arises because of the regular use of a word in a particular language. This approach is a Vygotskian perspective referring to the child as an active learner interacting with the people surrounding it (Cameron 2001: 6). Learning and development take place in a social context up until the child is “gradually shifting away from reliance on other people to independent action and thinking” (Cameron 2001: 7).

But how do children determine the appropriate links between words and their meanings? Taking both perspectives into account and trying to find an answer to the question if one needs a specific prior knowledge to link a new word to its meaning or if meaning rather arises from social interaction, Quine’s (1960) famous thought experiment of radical translation serves as an example. In his experiment, Quine creates the situation of a linguist visiting an unknown country and trying to learn a previous unfamiliar and radically different language (Markman 1991: 20). When a rabbit passes by, the linguist observes a certain correlation between a native’s utterance gavagai and the rabbit’s presence. Therefore, the linguist “hypothesizes that it refers to ‘rabbit’” (Markman 1991: 20f.). In the following, Quine points out, however, that the meaning of gavagai is inscrutable as it could equally refer to a certain color, an integral part of the rabbit or “to some abstract concept ‘rabbithood’” (Markman 1991: 21). Therefore, the main difficulty of the situation is that the range of potential meanings of the word is virtually infinite as there has only been one certain situation the word has been used by a native speaker.

Now, considering children beginning to acquire their native language face the same difficulties as the linguist in Quine’s example, how do they conclude that a given word refers to a certain referent and not only to particular characteristics of the object? One possible answer to the question is given through outcomes of theories which argue that “innate constraints help children isolate the meaning of words” (Rowland 2014: 55). Thus, children have certain innate learning strategies about how to interpret newly learned words which limit the high number of possible hypotheses (Rowland 2014: 55). One proposed constraint is the whole-object assumption stating that children assume that new words always refer to whole objects rather than to particular parts of the object (Rowland 2014: 56). The mutual exclusivity assumption is a second constraint explaining that children assume objects only having one name, which means that new words are not interpreted as a synonym to an already known word (Rowland 2014: 56). Another often-cited constraint, namely, the taxonomic assumption, suggests children to only extend a new word “to taxonomically related things” (Rowland 2014: 56) rather than members of another category (Rowland 2014: 56).

Although a combination of these constraints would presumably help the children to figure out the appropriate meaning for a word in many cases, “children could draw on a variety of alternatives to a particular constraint when they assign meaning” (Clark 2010: 138). Also, words with abstract meaning, as well as words relating to particular parts of objects only, pose an added difficulty as they are in contradiction to the whole-object assumption (Astington & Peskin 2004: 65). Further, children are giving up certain, if not all, constraints as they grow older, however, there is only little agreement on how to identify “the developmental changes that lead children to abandon particular constraints” (Clark 2003: 138).

An alternative, therefore, is to take a look at “how children might build on conceptual categories in combination with pragmatic information in context” (Clark 2003: 138). Following this perspective on meaning acquisition, children learn language in a social context while interacting “with people in conversation” (Clark 2003: 138). This implies that children have the ability to follow the viewing direction of its conversation partners and perceive its communicative intensions by achieving “joint attention” (Clark 2003: 138). Additionally, children need to be able to “segment the speech stream to interpret some of what the speaker says by identifying familiar sequences and by separating out unfamiliar words” (Clark 2003: 138). Therefore, the meaning of the word gavagai would depend on the situation in which the child is and the moment the word appears for the first time, as well as the communicative hints the speaker offers, such as “gaze, gestures [and] physical stance” (Clark 2003: 139). This was demonstrated by the study of Akhtar and Tomasello (1996) in which two-year-old children observed a speaker whose intention it was to find a toy in a basket (Pruden et al. 2006: 128). The speaker announced this intention by saying that she wants to find a toma (Pruden et al. 2006: 128) . When taking out the first toy, the speaker expressed disappointment whereas by retrieving the second toy, the speaker expressed her happiness and turned away from the basket in order to signal the child that she had terminated her search (Pruden et al. 2006: 128). When later asking the children which toy was the toma, they immediately assumed that the toy eliciting joy was the object the speaker was looking for (Pruden et al. 2006: 128).

Taking this study into account, proponents of the social-pragmatic view argue that the introduction of words is embedded into a social context which is accompanied by the children’s ability to figure out the “social intent of their mentors in this world” (Pruden et al. 2006: 128). Also, the situation of children learning a new word and Quine’s linguist being confronted with a new and radically different language differs in so far as children have already heard and partially processed the language of their speech community during the time in their mother’s womb. This is shown by a study of Bergelson and Swingley (2012) that tested the infant’s understanding of “some common words for body parts and food items using an eye tracking methodology” (Rowland 2014: 50). Therefore, the infants were shown pictures of different objects of which one of them was instructed by their parents (Rowland 2014: 50). As it was found out, the infant’s tendency to look at the object named by the parents was much higher, “indicating that six- to nine-month-olds had already learnt the meaning of these words” (Rowland 2014: 50).


Excerpt out of 11 pages


The Mental Lexicon. Children’s Acquisition of Lexical Meaning
University of Hildesheim
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ISBN (eBook)
Mental Lexicon, Children, Acquisition, Language Acquisition
Quote paper
Chiara Alina Sachwitz (Author), 2019, The Mental Lexicon. Children’s Acquisition of Lexical Meaning, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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