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Early Lexical Development Comprehension and Production

Early Lexical Development Comprehension and Production

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J. Child Lang.

6, I83-200. Printed in Great Britain

Early lexical development: comprehension and production *
HELEN BENEDICT
Michigan State University (Received 25 November 1977)
ABSTRACT

Lists of the first 50 words comprehended and produced by eight infants between 0 ; 9 and I ; 8 were compared. Comprehension development began earlier (around 0; 9) and reached the 50-word level (age I; 1) earlier than production development (ages I ; 0 and I ; 6 respectively) and rate of word acquisition for comprehension was twice that of production, confirming the hypothesis that comprehension precedes production for lexical development. Word-class analysis revealed differences in the proportion and type of action words in comprehension and production vocabularies. It is suggested that action is central to lexical development but is expressed differently in comprehension, where action words are used to initiate actions, and production, where non-action words accompany the child's actions.

INTRODUCTWN

Lexical development has long been of interest to linguists and psychologists (sec McCarthy 1954 for a review) who have at various times focused on vocabulary acquisition patterns, the content of early lexicons, and on the adult grammatical categories of the words used by the language learning child. Only recently has the focus shifted to examining the child's lexicon in terms of the child's apparent conceptual knowledge and to relating lexical development to other aspects of language acquisition, notably syntactic development (Bloom I973, Nelson 1973, and Greenfield & Smith 1976). However, this recent renewal of interest in lexical development has focused largely on productive language, generally ignoring early lexical comprehension and the relationship between comprehension and production. One recent study by Goldin-Mcadow, Seligman & Gelman (1976) has examined early lexical development by focusing on the relationship between
[*J I wish to thank Professor Katherine Nelson, Department
of Psychology, Yale University, for her support in carrying out this study. Address for correspondence: Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan 488<14. $01'50 © 1979 Cambridge University Preas
j

0305-0009/79/062.I-'O001
12

c r, 6

CHILD

LANGUAGE

EARLY

LEXICAL

DEVELOPMENT

receptive and productive language in the z-year-old. They found that z-year-old children understood more words, both nouns and verbs, than they could produce when tested on their knowledge of 100 words chosen to be representative of vocabularies of z-year-old children. The discrepancy between comprehension and production was greater for verbs than for nouns and the discrepancy for both decreased as production increased, leading the investigator to conclude that 'comprehension and production vocabularies [are] out of alignment during the early stages of language acquisition' but then move into alignment around two years of age (Goldin-Meadow et al. 1976: 20I). This study provides confirmation of age differences in comprehension and production at the z-year level and suggests that similar temporal discrepancies will be found at the earliest levels of lexical development. A second approach to lexical development focuses not on temporal discrepancies between comprehension and production but on the types of words making up early lexicons, both in comprehension and production. In the past, several hypotheses were advanced concerning the first words produced and, by extrapolation, understood by the child. While these hypotheses have differed in several ways, they have had in common an assumption that the child first learning language learns only one type of words. This assumption led to several theories, each of which claimed the dominance of a different class of words. Thus, Bruner (I975) emphasizes the early appearance of words for 'ritualized games' between mother and infant, arguing that such games provide an essential link between the word and its referent and thus initiate the lexical acquisition process. This view is in contrast to those who argue that the first words learned are object words - a position supported largely by the dominance of object words in early diary accounts of both comprehension and production (Gleitman, Gleitman & Shipley 1972, Guillaume I970, Huttenlocher 1974, Lenneberg 1967, Leopold I948, Lyamina 1966, MacNamara 1972, Mallitskaya 1966, McNeill 1970). Both of these views contrast with a third view arguing that actions and action words dominate early lexical development (Blank 1974, Bloom 1974, Piaget 1962, Schank 1974). Nelson (1973), in a detailed study of the earliest words produced by IS children, found that words from several word classes, rather than one word class, are present from the beginning of language production. While several word classes were present in the early productive lexicon, over half of the words learned were general nominals or object words. These data make the assumption untenable that only one class of words is learned for early production, but support the view that one type of words does dominate the early productive lexicon. The hypothesized earlier onset of lexical development in comprehension than in production leaves unanswered both the question of whether one or several word classes are learned initially in comprehension and the question of

which word class, if any, dominates lexical comprehension at its earliest levels. The present study was designed to obtain data on the first words understood and produced by the child both to provide a descriptive account, previously unavailable, of the earliest levels of language comprehension and to allow comparison of lexical development in comprehension and production. This comparison would be directed toward t\VO questions: (1) what is the quantitative relationship between the earliest words understood and produced in terms of age and rate of acquisition, and (z) what type or types of words are first learned and wbat is the distribution of these types in the two domains?

METHOD

The data reported here are part of a longitudinal study of the development of language comprehension and production in eight children. The study was carried out in tVI'Ophases. The first phase consisted of a six-month period of hi-weekly home visits beginning when the children were between 0; 9 and o ; 10 in age. During this phase there were three introductory visits in which. procedures were explained and a developmental examination was completed, twelve experimental visits including six sessions using commands to test the child's comprehension, three observation sessions, three sessions reserved for special procedures, and a final session where the Bayley Scales of Infant Development (Bayley 1969) were administered. The second phase, beginning at I; 5, consisted of two sessions each month, the first an observation session and the second a comprehension test session, both conducted within 5 days of the child's monthly birthdate, This phase was continued to age I ; 9 for all children, after which sessions for each child were terminated when the child's MLU exceeded 1.10 or the child reached the age of 2 ; 0, whichever came first. A final observation session was conducted at age 2 ; 3 for ail children. All visits, regardless of the specific procedure carried out, were between 45 and 90 minutes in length and all were recorded on tape using a battery-powered Sony cassette recorder. Simultaneously, the experimenter recorded, through written notes, selected aspects of the maternal behaviour, the child's behaviour, and! or the context, depending on the procedure of that session. The visits, which were rimed to coincide with the child's most alert and rested period of the day, began with a brief discussion between the mother and the experimenter during which the mother submitted the diary notes and reported any special events or problems (such as recent trips, special reasons for unusual fatigue, etc.), This was followed by the specific procedure planned for that visit, Finally, the experimenter interviewed the mother about specific language items observed or reported in the diaries.

12-2

CHILD

LANGUAGE

EARL Y LEXICAL

DEVELOPMENT

Subjects
The subjects for the study were eight first-born children of middle-class white English-speaking families recruited from lists of babies born in the Yale - New Haven Hospital during the target dates. To maximize homogeneity of the sample, it was further stipulated that both parents live in the home, that both have a minimum of a high school education, and that the mothers, as primary caretakers, donotworkoutside the home more than ten hours per week, The resulting sample, four boys and four girts, was drawn largely from lower-middle-class and middleclass homes, as indicated by a median of 12 years of schooling for the fathers and 12'5 years for the mothers. The employment status of the fathers confirms this picture, where six of the fathers were skilled workers (e.g. fireman, trucker) while the remaining two were white collar (commercial artist) and professional (lawyer). The fathers ranged in age from 2,7 to 43 with a median of 27'5 years while the mothers ranged in age from 23 to 29 with a median of 25'S years. Data collection Parental reports of language development. Parents, more typically mothers, served as informants on the language development of their children in three ways. First, they each maintained an ongoing diary record of their child's receptive and productive language. Second, beginning at 1 ; 0.15, mothers filled out a word checklist for words understood by their child. Finally, informal interviews were conducted each session during which the child's current language use was reviewed, diary entries were clarified, and situational information on checklist words was obtained. The initial visit was used both to introduce the study to the mother and, once she indicated a willingness to participate, instruct her on her role in data collection. One part of this instruction involved establishing criteria for defining words understood and words produced. A word was accepted as understood when the child showed a clear, immediate and correct response to a given word with the further stipulation that the response must EITHER occur to the same word in more than one situation OR occur to the word in a situation where the nonlinguistic information available did not duplicate the meaning of the word. Thus, if the child touched the ball both after the mother said get the ball and throw the ball, the child was credited with understanding the word ball, If the only time the child touched the ball was after the mother said go get the ball while pointing at the ball the chi1d would not be credited with comprehension of the word. A word was accepted as produced if it was used spontaneously with meaning, the meaning being determined from the context of use. The sounds used by the child did not need to duplicate adult sounds but the sound used had to be a consistent form for the child. '; The mother's diary record was initiated during the first visit and continued 186

throughout the first phase of the study for all children, at which time the comprehension diary was stopped. The mother's diary record of production was continued into the second phase of the study until the list of the child's first 50 words produced was completed. The diary sheets were collected by the experimenter each session and reviewed by the experimenter and mother to fill in any missing information or to clarify a particular entry. The diary itself was designed to include data on the actual word(s) understood and produced by the child, the date the usage occurred, a description of the situation in which it was said or understood and, in the case of comprehension, a description of the child's behaviour which indicated to the parent that he understood. A word checklist was added to the study when the children were age I ; 0,15, By this age, several mothers were finding it extremely difficult to keep up with their child's rapid comprehension development and the checklist was included to enable more exhaustive reporting of the child's total comprehension lexicon. The list itself was constructed from the list of object words acquired in the first 50-word vocabularies of 18 children (Nelson 1973) supplemented by a composite list of all words, including non-object words, understood by the subjects in the current study at I; 0.15. The list was given to the mother four times, at ages I; 0.22 (range I ; 0.I7~I ; 0.28), I; r.20 (range I; 1.I5-1 ; 1.23), I; 2,17 (range I; :U5-I; 2<21), and I; 3.13 (range I; 3.9-1; 3.24), with the instruction that she check off all words on the list she was certain her child understood. Subsequent interviews were conducted to obtain data comparable to that of the diary (approximate date of use and situation) for each word checked on the checklist, Observational procedures. Observation and recording of the child's language behaviour, both comprehension and production, using both written notes and audio tape, was constant throughout the study. The experimenter-observer thereby maintained records of ali examples of comprehension and production of language by the child which occurred in her presence. The information recorded with each of these examples paralleled the information recorded by the mother in the diary, including in each case the word, its use, and the situation in which it occurred, Thus, data on lexical development were recorded during all sessions regardless of the specific procedure carried out. Data from the other procedures including comprehension test sessions, mother-child free-play observations, and repetition test sessions, are reported elsewhere. The comprehension test sessions, where the child was presented with a series of commands and his response recorded, are of particular importance to this study. Analysis of early lexicons by data source revealed that the mothers' diaries consistently under-reported action words understood by the child, understanding which was discovered and confirmed largely by the comprehension tests.

CHILD

LANGUAGE

EARLY

LEXICAL

DEVELOPMENT

TAB LE 1.

Age of attainment of comprehension and production as measured in number of words understood and produced respectioely
Craig C
0;
0; 0;

TABLE

I

(cont.)
Karen Mean age at acquisition C p
0; 10.I4 I ; r.21

Number of words
0
20

Elizabeth P C 0; 10.8
0; 11.10

Amy
P

Michael

C
0; 10.15
0;!!.13

P
I; 2.II

C
o· 9.28 ,

P
1.0 0;

C

Diana

p
0; I;

C

\Villiam

p
2.13 0; 0;

C

David

P
rr.24

C

p

9.0' O· 9.21 ,

0; 10.26

r;
I'

30
50 60
80 100

ro.r

40

10.14

OJ IO.20
0; II.2
I. I;

, , I' ,
1. I'

0; 11.30
LIS

3·2oI 5.2

,

0; II.206 1 ; 0.16 I; 0.17' I; 0.20

3·9 3·2.9 1 ; 4.12 I ; 5.0 r ; 6.0

,

0; I I. II

0; 10.2I 11.13

I; 0.28

I; 4·13
I' s I;

OJ

0;
I;

11.28 0·5

I;

0

I;
I;
1•

1.5
2.U
2.29

ISO

I • 1.15
I•

,
,

0.17 3.24 28.06

,

200

1 ; 0.::1;1 I; 0.26 I . 0.26" , I; 0.26 I' , 2.13 I ; 3.16 37.70

5.13 6·3 6.29

10.14 0; Ir.II

I;
I; 1•

I; 0.8
I; 0.23

,

1.28 2.17

J;

I; 0.25· I; 0.26 I; 2.17
d

3.0

I; 3.n 0; n:.26 I; 4.29 I; 0.14 I; 6.2 r ; I.7 I; 7.r r : 2.5
I;

10.24 0.7 0.16

I;

W.lO 1L5

0;

I;

I;
I;

0.26
LIS

2.19

I; 3.5
d

r ; 2.13 I; 2.30 I; 3.l'}
d

r; I; 5.22 I; 0.1 I; I; 7.19 I; 0.23 I; I; 8.20 I; L19 I;
I; 3.0
d

I; 3.17

1.5
2.15 3.II 5.5

r; 0.8 I; 2.3 1; 3.II
I; 3.15 I; 4.5"

I; 6.r6 I; 8.2
I; 9.5

0; ILlS

I; 0.3
I; 0.19

~

I; 9.19 I; 10.0

I; 1.5

I; 3.6 I; 4.14 I; 5.16
I; 6,15

I; 3.11

Words added per month
29.85 14·76 8.71 19·35 13·94 7.42 IO.26 11·49

a

words understood prior to start of study, age is estimate based on mother's report. . Karen did not reach 50 words understood by the end of the study. However, her mother continued to keep a record to 50 words understood. .
10
b

e The introduction of the word checklist at 0; 12.5 caused rapid inflation in total corpus for several of the children (notably Amy, Elizabeth, and Michael). ~The child did not reach this vocabulary level during the first phase of the study. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

Data Reduction Composite di-ary. Data on lexical development from both sources, parental reports and observational procedures, were combined into a composite diary of comprehension and production. This composite diary was a,word-based diar.y where all evidence available on both the child's comprehension and production of a particular word was recorded. For each word, the information recorded included the source of the data, the date of occurrence, the child's age on that date, the word itself and the linguistic context of its use, the situation of !ts occurre~ce and the child's behaviour. This composite diary for comprehension was maintained only for the first phase of the study, after which the child's co~pre~ension lexicon was too extensive to be recorded exhaustively, The composite diary for production was continued into the second phase until a vocabulary of 50 words was reached by the child. From these data, lists of the first 50 words produced and the first one hundred words understood by each child were compiled, and these lists comprise the data to be reported in this paper.!
[1J Not all children understood 100 words by the end of the first phase. lI~wever, continued recording of comprehension in the second phase was not possible, largeI~ because of the large time gap (I' 5 mon ths) betv:een th~ two ~hases and the mothers reluctance to continue what to them was becoming an impossible task.

The analysis of early lexical development was carried out on two levels: quantitative aspects of acquisition including age factors and rate of development, and word forms (or semantic categories) acquired. At both levels, the focus was twofold: to provide basic descriptive data on the earliest levels of language comprehension and to examine further the relationship between early comprehension and early production of language. Quantitative aspects of lexical development Cumulative lists (by age) of all words understood by each child during the first phase of the study and of the first 50 words produced by each child were analysed to determine the rate of lexical development and the ages at which it occurred. These results are presented in Table I, where the children are arranged from l~ft to right in order of attainment of 50 words understood. Group results are limited to the 50-item level in comprehension as the minimal level of comprehension attained by all subjects during the first phase of the study.P While there was considerable range in the ages at which both comprehension and production developed across the eight children, group results show major differences in the ages of onset and of attainment of lexical development between comprehension and production. On the average, children understood 50 words
[2] Karen did not meet this requirement until three weeks after the completion of Phase I

of the study.

188

r89

CHILD

LANGUAGE

EARLY

LEXICAL

DEVELOPMENT

before they were able to produce 10 words, For individual children, the number of words understood at the point that 10 words were produced ranged from 30 to r82, with a mean of 60'22 words understood. The results showed, in addition, a gap of approximately 5 months between the attainment of the 50-word level in comprehension and attainment of the same level in production. These results support the longstanding claim that comprehension develops before production, thus extending the results of Goldin-Meadow et al. (I976) to earlier age levels. Another aspect of quantitative development is the rate of acquisition, measured both in the average length of time between the attainment of 10 words and the
~CiO

subsequent attainment of 50 words, and the mean number of new words acquired per month. In comprehension, the mean age interval from 10 to 50 words understood was 2·69 months, with an average of 22'23 new words comprehended each month. Thus, lexical development in comprehension was rapid and occurred over a relatively short time period, seen most dearly in the steep slope of the individual acquisition curves presented in Fig. I. Rate of acquisition for production, analysed in a similar manner, showed the mean age interval from 10 to 50 words produced to be 4'8 months, almost twice the time used in comprehension. Only 9'09 new words were produced per month, a rate similar to the II'r words
70

ISO
I I

, ,
$

I

I

{:l-

I

"''""
U

60
SO 40
30 20

-g
....

::l

160

140

ft'
I I

,.- "

.,. f1.

I

I ,

I

~ ~

c..,

,.
'-<

'0

.::

;2 c; ;:::
0

'" "
u

" ~ ~

10
15 16 Age (in 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24

e c.

l20

I
I
I I

months)

"" 0:
'0

~
....

I

)00

I I

"
80
60 50
I

I

" ~

Z

}. Jf. , ,
.(:t/

I I

Fig. 2;. Number of words produced by age (in months). Craig; 0 - - 0, William; <) - - 0, David; e-e, Amy; .-A, Elizabeth.

°--

+-+,

0, Michael; 6. - - £:,., Karen; a-., Diana;

I'

~

40
I

if.
,/'

I'

If.

20

l:f.

;1
Cf

P"

_::r,:."./

per month found in Nelson's (I973) study, The lower rate in this study appears to reflect the earlier onset of language production in these children, since the course of acquisition was similar to the two studies. An examination of the individua1 production acquisition curves presented in Fig. 2 shows the 'slowly accelerating [initial] pace with a strong positive increase at the end of the period' described by Nelson (1973: 36). Thus, comprehension not only developed earlier than production, it developed much more rapidly. This finding emphasizes again the need to attend to the earliest, and essentially pre-speech, levels of language development for a full understanding of lexical development.
12 13
14

0

10

11

15

16

Qualitative aspects of early development
In the previous section it was established that these children understood words at an early age compared to their production. However, that analysis left unanswered the question of what forms of words are understood. To answer this question, the first· 100 words understood and the first 50 words produced were

Age (in rnonths)

Fig. I. Number of words understood by age (in months), 0 - - 0, Michael; 6. - - 6, Craig; 0 - - 0, William; 0 -- <), David; .-., Amy; A-A, Karen; a-B, Diana; Elizabeth.

+-+,

CHILD

LANGUAGE

EARLY

LEXICAL

DEVELOPMENT

analysed to determine what grammatical categories were represented within the two eorpuses. The system of categorization used was based on Nelson (1973) but was modified to reflect comprehension development more accurately. 3 For an categories, the word's form was defined in relation to the child's use, regardless of the category normally applied to the word in adult usage. One final factor must be noted. There exist sufficient differences in comprehension and production at this stage of development to make any single system inadequate to describe both completely. However, for purposes of comparability, the same system will be used for both, with areas of divergence discussed as part of the results. A. words that refer to 'things' (I) SPECIFIC NOMJNALS: words that refer to only one exemplar of a category, usually but not necessarily limited to proper names. (a) People (Daddy) (b) Animals (Cappy - name of pet) (c) Objects (Roscoe - name of toy dog)
NOMINALS:

(+) General action words (a) Object-related: get, gi'l'e,find, show, kiss
(b) Non-abject-related: dance, jump

(5) Action inhibitors: words that inhibit actions (no, don't touch).

C. MODIFIERS; words that refer to properties or qualities of things or events
(I) Attributes (big, p1'etty) (2) States (allgone, hot, dirty) (3) Locatives (there, outside) (4) Possessives (mine)

D. PERSONAL-SOCIAL: words that express affective states and social relationships (!) Assertions (yes, no, want) (2) Social expressive actions (bye-bye, hi, nite-nite)
TABLE 2.

(2) General nominals: words which refer to all members of a category. (a) Inanimate objects (common subcategories include toys, clothes, body parts, food, household items) (b) Animate objects (people or animals) (c) Pronouns (e.g. this, that, he) words that elicit specific actions from the child or that accompany actions of the childs (I) Social-action games; words which elicit one and only one action response involving no more than one specific object (usually no object is involved) always in a social-game relationship. (a) Action games: games which elicit a motor response (e.g, clap hands,
ACTION WORDS:

Distribution of semantic categoriesfor the first and production
(No.)

50

words in comprehension
Production (No.) (%)
248 61
II

Comprehension (%) S6
17 39

I.

Nominals

B.

Specific General Animate Inanimate
Pronouns

221

lIB

68* 153* 35 3

9
30

202* 52 150

46*

8

50 13 37 2

peek-a-boo) (b) Verbal games: games which elicit a verbal response (e.g. what does the doggie say?)
(2) Event words: words which elicit an action sequence or an activity (e.g. eat where the response is to run to the kitchen and climb into the high chair). (3) Locatives: words that require locating something or putting something in a specific location. (a) Locative search words: where' s, look at (b) Locative actions: put in
[3J Modification was necessary in two areas. One category present in production data (function words) was not present in a measurable way in comprehension. In addition, action words in comprehension allowed a mure differentiated categorization than was possible for action words in production. [4J Since the measure of comprehension in this study is the child's overt behaviour, in a literal sense all words elicit some action. The definition'here is restricted to specific actions related to specific words.

Action words Social action games Events Locatives General action ( + inhibitors) III. Modifiers
II. States

I44*
6.
3 21 59
12*

36
IS
I

75* 44

19
II

IS
3
;;:

5

"
IS

26
40* I2 7 3 39* 36 3

5

I

6
10

Attributes Locatives Possessives IV. Personal-social Assertions Social expressive

9
2 0

r
0 I

4
3
2

:H* 8 13

5
2

10 9
I

4

a This category by definition occurs only in comprehension '" X~ = 53'2I,d.f, = 4, P<O'OL

Each of the child's words, both in comprehension and production, was assigned a category on the basis of the first use of the word recorded in the composite diary. The distribution of the first 50 words by categories for both comprehension and Production, combined across all subjects, is presented in Table 2. For both comprehension and production, all major word classes,

192

CHILD

LANGUAGE

EARLY

LEXICAL

DEVELOPMENT

including specific and general nominals, action words, modifiers, and personal social words, were represented in the first 50-word vocabularies. Thus Nelson's (1973) earlier finding for production was replicated and paralleled by a similar finding for comprehension. This finding is significant in light of the controversy in the literature between those who argue that object words are the earliest category to develop (Huttenlocher 1974) and those who argue that the earliest words to be understood are action-related. These data support the argument that, from the beginnings of language development, the child is learning several classes of words and not just one. A second similarity was found in examining the categorical distribution of early vocabularies in comprehension and production. In both, the two largest categories were general nominals and action words. Combined, these categories made up 75% of the words comprehended and 69% of the words produced at the 50-word level. In an indirect way, the dominance of these two categories provides support for the arguments of both sides of the controversy described above. That is, both those who claimed object words develop earliest (Huttenlecher 1974) and those arguing action words dominate initially (Bloom 1973, Guillaume 1970, Piaget 1962) appear to have been reflecting the high salience of both categories of words in the diary and observational accounts of early comprehension available to them. Thus far, the results have shown only a temporal difference between early comprehension and production. However, in the following discussion, several substantive differences between the two in terms of early lexical development will be shown. One major difference concerns the distribution of the various semantic categories in the two domains. Action words made up a considerably larger proportion of the early comprehension vocabulary than of the production vocabulary. The resulting distributions were found to be significantly different across the first 10 words (x2 = 20·8I, d.f, = 3, P<O'OI) and across the first 50 words (X:! = 53'ZI, d.f, = 4, P<O-OI). Since the two vocabularies were assessed at different ages and in different ways, the possibility that categorical distribution differences are artifacts of the collection procedures needs to be considered. The production vocabularies present no problem, since recording of the child's words was straightforward and the data obtained in this study closely paralleled results from other similar studies (Nelson 1973, Rescorla 1975). For comprehension, it might be argued that action words were easier to assess than object words, In fact, the opposite appears to be true. For object words, only a simple visual orientation response was required to verify understanding of the word. For action words, however, the child had to perform an action and do so in a way that distinguished it from other similar actions to show understanding of the word. This difficulty in obtaining accurate data for action words, solved in large measure through the use of comprehension tests;' makes the distributional differences found even more compelling. 194

The distributional differences between comprehension and production were even more apparent when the changes in categorical distribution across the first fifty words were compared, seen in Table 3. The developmental changes produced both similarities and differences in the two domains. Similarities were seen in three of the five categories; personal- social words were a small category (although somewhat larger in production than in comprehension) which made up a steady proportion of the total vocabulary; modifiers were a very small or non-existent category initially which then increased slowly throughout the first 50-word period; and specific nominals were initially a large category (30% of the first 10 words comprehended and 24% of the first 10 words produced) which showed a steady decrease.
TABLE

3. Change in percentage distribution of comprehension and production vocabularies by order of acquisition of words (N = 8)
Acquisition order (words)
0-10 0-;':0 0-30 0-40 0--50 0-60 0--80 0-100

~~C3

%P %C %P %C %P %C %P %C %P %C· %C' %C"
;,:4
38
22 27

Nominals Specific Nominals General Action words Modifiers Personalsocial

30

17

19
33
44
0

13

18
37 40
2 3
h

II

17

II

16

15

14-

14
53 0

41
z6

43
25

49
21

39
36 3 5

50

42
36

43 36 3 3

47 343 2

2Z 5
IO

48
0

9 8
a

8

19
10 IO

9
IO

4
2

3

3

4-

II

N=7.

N= 6.

The two remaining categories showed different patterns in comprehension and production. In comprehension action words initially dominated and in a dramatic way. Over 50% of the words in the first re-word vocabularies in comprehension were action words, which then gradually decreased in importance to a level of 36% of the words understood at the 50-word level- decreases due largely to proportional increases in other categories. General nominals, in contrast, began at a low level in comprehension (14%) and gradually rose, exceeding the frequency of action words for the first time at the 50-word level and then only slightly (39%). In production, general nominals were nearly twice as frequent as action words at all vocabulary levels and action words never constituted more than a quarter of the child's productive vocabulary, Thus action words appear to be far more important to early lexical development in comprehension than in production. The second major- difference in lexical development between comprehension

EARLY CHILD TABLE LANGUAGE

LEXICAL

DEVELOPMENT

4. Action wordsd acquired in the first 50 words comprehended and produced
Category and word frequencyb Camp. Prod. Category and word frequency!> Compo Prod.

Social action games Action games bye-bye pat-a-cake dance peek-a-boo do nice give kisses rock rock nite nite brush hair wait a minute clap hands so big bite tongue hit Daddy ride in car give me a bite splash don't bite get dressed chew good eat the cookie ready-set-go tickle put ball in box play horsey blow your nose don't touch watch your head whee wa wa wa touch down there she is boom Verbal games say say hello what's the cat say (p meow) what's the duck say (p quack) rrm, rrrn (car sound) woof woof

7
7

5
0 0

5 5
5 4 3

4
0 0
;2;

3

4
0 0 0 0 0 0

z

3
2

3
2
I I I

0 0 0

Verbal games moo beep beep caw (crow) whoo (owl) buzz (bee) hi deer oink sssh hop hop General ac tions Object-related give get kiss throw
bring

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

2

I I 1 I I

I

8 7
5 3

0
;2;

0 0 0 0

z

may I have see
go

;2; ;2;

I

0 0 0 0

I I 0 1 I 0

5 3
0 I 0 0

and production concerns the words making up the action category in the two domains. The action-word categories in comprehension and production were largely non-overlapping both in types of words included and in the actual words themselves: this is evident in Table 4. In the distribution of action words into categories, social-action games comprised 55% of all action words in production and 49% in comprehension. General action words made up 38% of action words in production but only 29 % in comprehension. Locative words, in contrast, were more frequent in comprehension (22%) than in production (6%). Far more striking differences were seen in the proportion of words in each of the subcategories making up the social-action games and general action categories. In the social-action games category, 93 % of the words understood were action games while only 64% of the games produced were action games. The verbal games showed the opposite pattern, with a much higher frequency of occurrence in production (28%) than incomprehension (3%)' The general action subcategories showed similar differences. In comprehension, object-related actions were far more numerous (23%) than person-related action words (7%). In production, person-related action words ",'ere nearly as frequent as objectrelated action words (17% and 22% respectively). When the distributions in comprehension and production of action words in the four categories discussed above were compared, the difference between them was significant (x2 = 29'04

!
I

I I

Z 0
0 0 0

listen read show find out Person-related

dJ.

= 3, P<o·or).

3

no'
stop itO two walk eat Locatives Locative search words wherc's look at Locative actions come here put in get down dose open get up
sit

7 3
0 0 0 0

6
I

I

0
I

I
I I 1

o

o o
o

I
I

o
Z
1 0

8 6 7 5
4
2 I I

0 0

a
!

0 0

3
0
0

I

2.

o
o

3

5

.hh llel in production, are omitted. . " Event words, whic ~ve no para 1 I h d the word in the 50-word acquisitlOn b Number of children m the sarnp e wno a sequence. '. .. e Action-lllhlbitor words. db· of their rarity are iri'duded among general action wor s, ecause ,

There are several possible arguments to account for the different size and content of the action category in the two domains. One possibility is that as the child becomes more verbal (one evidence of which is the development of production) he has less and less need to rely on an action mode. Thus, by inference, action words make up less of his active language, However, this explanation is little more than description of the results, providing little explanatory power. A second possible explanation focuses on the age differences found for comprehension and production, arguing that action is somehow less salient to the child as he grows older, perhaps because of greater mastery of his own actions. Again, such an argument has little explanatory power since the only evidence of the differential importance of action between children at ages I ; 1.0 and I ; 6.0 is the difference we are trying to explain. A clearer understanding becomes possible when these results are considered in light of Piaget's (1962-) theory of sensori-motor development. According to this view, the child under I ; 6 learns through the application of action schemas to experiences in his world. By implication, therefore, action, in the form of sensori-motor schemas, is the principal mode by which the child interacts with his world. The early dominance and continued importance of action words in comprehension is consistent with such a view. The problem lies in the production data. The lower incidence of action words in production, according to this view, would indicate that action is somehow less salient to the child when he is speaking

197

CHILD

LANGUAGE

EARL Y LEXICAL

DEVELOPMENT

than when he is understanding. Such an explanation is clearly implausible. An alternative explanation, supported here, is that the differential frequency of use reflects basic differences in language modality and use rather than in actual importance of action to the child. . ., Comprehension is an action~dominated mode, in the sens~ t?at the c~lld s understanding of words triggers an action response. Although it IS less ObVlOUS, production is also action~dominated, but here words accompany rather than trigger a response. To give an example, if the expe.rimenter say~ to the child, typically the child will get the ball and throw rt, thus showing hIS.understanding of the action word by carrying out the action. At the same time the child says ball, a general nominaL In this case, the child does the aC.tion and us~s his words, in their most general sense, as supplements or adjuncts to his

by the non-overlapping lexicons of action words in the two domains, support a view that there are important differences in the processes and development of
early comprehension as compared with production. The importance of studying comprehension in its own right is thus demonstrated in this data. Clearly, considerable language development has already occurred by the time the child first speaks, making study of this phase of developing comprehension a potentially valuable source of data on basic questions concerning the relationship between the so-called 'prelinguistic' period and later language development and concerning the cognitive bases for language development.

=:

REFERENCES Bayley, N. (1969). Bayley scales of infant development, New York: Psychological Corporation. Blank, M. (1974). Cognitive functions of language in the preschool years. DevPsychol roo 229-45, Bloom, L. (1973). One uiord at a time: the use of single word utterances before syntax, The Hague: Mouton. ~~ (1974). 'Talking, understanding, and thinking. In R. L. Schiefelbusch & L. L. Lloyd (eds), Language perspectioes - acquisition, retardation, and intervention. Baltimore; University Park Press. Bruner, J. S. (r975). The ontogenesis of speech acts. JChLang 2. I-I9. Gleitman, L. R., Gleitman, H. & Shipley, E. (1972). The emergence of the child as grammarian. Cognition s, 137-64. Goldin-Meadow, S., Seligman, M. E. P. & Gelman, R. (1976). Language in the two year old. Cognition 4. 189-202. Greenfield, P. M. & Smith, J. H. (r976). The structure oj communication in early language development. New York: Academic Press. Guillaume, P. (1970). The emergence of the sentence. In A. L. Blumenthal (ed.), Language and psychology; historical aspect of psycholinguistics. New York: Wiley. Huttenlocher, J. (1974). The origins of language comprehension. In R. L. Salsa (cd.), Theories in cognitive psychology. New York: Earlbaum. Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). Bialogical foundations of language. New York: Wiley. Leopold, "V, (1948). Semantic learning in infant language. Word 4. 173-80. Lyamina, G. M. (1966). [Development of speech comprehension in children in the second year of life] VOp1"Osypsikhol3 (1960), IO&--2I. (Slobin, D. L Abstracts of soviet studies of child language. In F. Smith & G. A. Miller (eds), The genesis of language. Cambridge, Mass.: M.LT.) MacNamara, J. (1972). The cognitive basis of language learning in infants. PsychRev 70.
1-13· .

action. This chosen connection between action and verbalization was a major finding of Rodgon, Jankowski & Alenskas (1977), who fou~d that a~proximately h:Othirds of each child's single-word speech occurred while the child was performmg an action involving a present object. Thus, the child in this period of development verbalizes in an action context, and is responsive to words he hears that relate to actions he does and likes. In both comprehension and production, therefore action is central but in different ways. Suppo~ for this view of action words comes also from an analysis of. t~e situations in which his early action words are used and understood. The child s productive action words were divided into several subcategories based on .use. Several action words were specific words associated with games such as animal sounds (17%) and highly stereotyped words for games such as the ,sound ~f a motor as a car is pushed around or beep-beep for the car's horn (14 Yo). I'he .a~lOn words associated with social exchanges (bye-bye, nite-nitei made up an additional 14 % of the action words produced. By far the largest category (3Z%) were action words which demanded action from another person. Words such as see (asking the mother to look at something), go 'make the top go :r~~nd', UP. 'pi~ me up' and peek 'play peek-a-boo with me', all served to inmate actlOn.In someone else rather than to describe the child's action. Only 14% of the action words used by the child at this age described or labelled an action he was doing himself. Examples of this type of use are sit as the child sat down and I got as the child picked up a toy. This contrasts sharply with comprehension where, definition all action words served to initiate some action on the part of the child and thus, 'to some degree, became labels for the actions they elicited. . The results of this study have thus confirmed one widely held assumption about the relationship between language comprehension and production: comprehension precedes production in the early lexical devel~pment .of ?,oung children. At the same time, the temporal difference and the different incidence and role of action words in comprehension and production, further highlighted

:rm

?y

Mallitskaya, M. K. (r 966). [A method for using pictures to develop speech comprehension in children at the end of the first and in the second year of life] Voprosy psikhol3 (1960), 122-6. (Slobin, D. I. Abstracts of soviet studies of child language. In F. Smith & G. A. Miller (eds), The genesis of language. Cambridge, Mass.; M.I.T.) McCarthy, D. (1954), Language development in children. In L. Carmichael (cd.), Manual of child psychology (znd edn). New York: Wiley, McNeill, D. (1966). Developmental psycholinguistics. In F. Smith & G. A. Miller (eds), The genesis oj language. Cambridge, Mass. : M.1. T. -~ (1970). The acquisition of language. New York: Harper & Row. Nelson, K (1973). Structure and strategy in learning to talk. MonogrSocResChDevel. 38, (r-c), No. 149.
I3

199

JCL 6

CHILD

LANGUAGE

Piaget,

J. (1962). Play dreams and imitation. (Trans. C. Gattegno & F. M. Hodgson;)~ New York: Norton.>1 Rescorla, L. (1975). Concept formation in word learning. Unpublished doctoral dissertaj~ tion, Yale University. ':~ Ro~gon, M. M., Jankowski~ 'V. & Alenskas, L. (1977). A multi-functional approach t6j single word usage. JChLang 4. 23-44. .:~::j Schank, R. C. (1972). Conceptual dependency: a theory of natural language understanding.]
CogPsychol 3~522-.-.63:r.

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