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Pick This, Not That (30-36 months)

**How children use rules to learn the meanings of new words**

 How can children learn new words so quickly?  Do they have some way to match new objects to new words that they hear and will they resist giving an object two names?  Many psychologists have studied what they call the “mutual exclusivity” bias where children learning new words avoid giving an object they already know another name and instead assign a new name to a novel object.  Below I describe one of the first studies to show this learning mechanism: Markman & Wachtel (1988).


  •  Six familiar objects, that is, objects that you know your child knows how to label. In the study they used: a banana, a plate, a cup, a spoon, etc.
  •  Six unfamiliar objects, that is, objects that you know your child does not know how to label.  In the study they used: a cherry pitter, a lemon wedgepress, tongs, an odd shaped container, etc.
  •  Six nonsense words.  Researchers use a variety of words that are novel to children to test out their theories of word learning.  For example, you can use:  fep, bleen, dorn, febbit, blick, and plog.


Sit on the floor across from the child.  Tell the child, “I’m going to show you some things and ask you to pick some. Listen carefully and give the best answer you can.”  Place a pair of one familiar object and one unfamiliar object in front of the child.  Ask him to “Show me the X” using one of the nonsense words from your list and record which object your child picks.  Do not provide any feedback.  Continue this process with the next five pairs of familiar and unfamiliar objects, using a different nonsense word for each pair.

Notes & Observations

What did you observe? Did your child pick the novel object when you asked to see the “fep” or other novel word?  What do you think he would have done if you said “show me one”?

Research Findings & Extension

The researchers found that when asked to pick the object referred to by the nonsense word, children picked the unfamiliar object on almost 5 out of 6 trials.  This was more often than expected by chance; in contrast, they chose randomly in the condition where the researchers asked the children to “show me one.”  Thus, the children were not just gravitating toward the unfamiliar object; the presence of the novel word compelled them to pick the novel object.  The paper goes on to test many different variations, including how children attribute novel words to parts of objects.  Others have looked at bilingual children and how they suspend this bias, since they, of course, need to assign two words to each object, one in each language.


Markman, E.M. & Wachtel, G.F. (1988).  Children’s use of mutual exclusivity to constrain the meanings of words.  Cognitive Psychology, 20, 121-157.


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