Learning proper nouns and common nouns without clues from syntax

Mutsumi Imai, Etsuko Haryu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


Syntax has been noted to play an important role in word learning in English; it distinguishes the fundamental conceptual difference between individuals (coded as proper nouns), nonindividuals (coded as mass nouns), and classes of individuals (coded as count nouns). The Japanese language does not have grammatical markers flagging the distinctions between count nouns and mass nouns, between proper nouns and common nouns, or between singulars and plurals. How Japanese 2- and 4-year-olds assign meaning to novel nouns associated with familiar and unfamiliar animals and inanimate objects was studied in the research reported here. When a novel label was given to an unfamiliar object, children assumed it to be a name for a basic-level object category whether the referent was an animal or an inanimate object. If the named object already had an established name, and if the object was an inanimate object, the children mapped the noun to a subordinate category. When the named object was an animal, however, they tended to interpret the label as a proper name. These results demonstrated that in the absence of useful information from syntax, 2-year-old Japanese children are able to fast map a noun to its meaning by elegantly coordinating word-learning biases and other available sources of information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)787-802
Number of pages16
JournalChild Development
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2001 Jan 1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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