Consistency and variability in children's word learning across languages


Why do children learn some words earlier than others? The order in which words are acquired can provide clues about the mechanisms of word learning. In a large-scale corpus analysis, we use parent-report data from over 32,000 children to estimate the acquisition trajectories of around 400 words in each of 10 languages, predicting them on the basis of independently derived properties of the words’ linguistic environment (from corpora) and meaning (from adult judgments). We examine the consistency and variability of these predictors across languages, by lexical category, and over development. The patterning of predictors across languages is quite similar, suggesting similar processes in operation. In contrast, the patterning of predictors across different lexical categories is distinct, in line with theories that posit different factors at play in the acquisition of content words and function words. By leveraging data at a significantly larger scale than previous work, our analyses identify candidate generalizations about the processes underlying word learning across languages.

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