Word learning does not end at fast-mapping: Evolution of verb meanings through reorganization of an entire semantic domain

Noburo Saji, Mutsumi Imai, Henrik Saalbach, Yuping Zhang, Hua Shu, Hiroyuki Okada

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Citations (Scopus)


This paper explores the process through which children sort out the relations among verbs belonging to the same semantic domain. Using a set of Chinese verbs denoting a range of action events that are labeled by carrying or holding in English as a test case, we looked at how Chinese-speaking 3-, 5-, and 7-year-olds and adults apply 13 different verbs to a range of carrying/holding events. We asked how children learning Chinese originally divide and label the semantic space in this domain, how they discover the boundaries between different words, and how the meanings of verbs in the domain as a whole evolve toward the representations of adults. We also addressed the question of what factors make verb meaning acquisition easy or hard. Results showed that the pattern of children's verb use is largely different from that of adults and that it takes a long time for children to be able to use all verbs in this domain in the way adults do. We also found that children start to use broad-covering and frequent verbs the earliest, but use of these verbs tends to converge on adult use more slowly because children could not use these verbs as adults did until they had identified boundaries between these verbs and other near-synonyms with more specific meanings. This research highlights the importance of systematic investigation of words that belong to the same domain as a whole, examining how word meanings in a domain develop as parts of a connected system, instead of examining each word on its own: learning the meaning of a verb invites restructuring of the meanings of related, neighboring verbs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-61
Number of pages17
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2011 Jan


  • Language acquisition
  • Lexical development
  • Reorganizaiton of word meaning
  • Word meaning representation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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