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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The nature of infants' early object word comprehension Campbell, Jennifer Christa Shirley


A longstanding question in the literature on language development concerns the nature of infants’ first object word representations: Do these terms have scope over individual objects or entire object categories? Answering this question is important for accounts of the origin of lexical knowledge. Through seven experiments, this dissertation explored the nature of infants’ early object word comprehension. Experiments 1 to 4 assessed six-month-olds’ comprehension of the names for their caregivers. The findings support the claim that these words have scope over individual objects and are consistent with the possibility that infants can represent names for individual objects from the outset of word learning. Experiments 5 and 6 explored whether six- and nine-month-olds comprehend both labels with scope over individual objects (the name for their mother, e.g., "Mommy") and labels with scope over object categories (the word "hand" at six months; the word "ball" at nine months). The results were consistent with these predictions. These discoveries suggest that infants can represent both words for individual objects and words for object categories from the beginning of lexical development. Experiment 7 went a step further than the previous experiments by exploring whether 12- to 15-month-olds comprehend two object labels with differing scope for the same object (i.e., their own pet dog or cat): both a name for the individual object (e.g., "Fido") and a name for the object category (e.g., "dog"). The results indicate that by about their first birthday, infants have the cognitive flexibility to learn multiple words differing in extension (individual object, object category) for the same object. Together, the findings suggest that the capacity to learn both words with individual object scope and words with object category scope is present from the outset of lexical development. Additionally, the demonstration that by one year, infants can learn two words - one with individual scope and one with categorical scope – for the same object, indicates previously undocumented flexibility in their capacity to represent the same physical object both as an individual object and as an instance of an object category. The findings significantly enrich our understanding of the origins of lexical development.

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