Children, more than adults, rely on similarity to access multiple meanings of words

AbstractPast research has shown that adults can access multiple meanings for a word, but little work has examined how children process multiple meanings. We tested 48 4- to 7- year-old children and 48 adults in a touchscreen picture recognition task. Two meanings of the same word were displayed on successive trials, which varied according to whether the 2 meanings were unrelated (homonyms), related (polysemes), or repeated (same-meaning). Adults identified the second meaning more quickly than the first in all conditions and to the same extent. Children, however, identified the second meaning more quickly only on polysemy and same-meaning trials. This difference suggests that children are less capable of co-activating unrelated meanings, which raises the possibility that children must learn to do so over development. Despite the ubiquity of polysemy in language, our work is the first to show that children’s processing of word representations is organized by similarity.

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