Syntactic context and the shape bias in children's and adults' lexical learning

Barbara Landau, Linda B. Smith, Susan Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


Previous research has shown that young children and adults share a shape bias in learning novel object count nouns: they generalize the label to objects sharing the same shape as a standard but differing greatly in size or texture (Landau, Smith, & Jones, 1988). Three experiments tested the hypothesis that this shape bias is linked specifically to the acquisition of count nouns and therefore should be altered systematically by manipulating the form class of the novel word. Three-year-olds, five-year-olds, and adults were shown an object and taught a novel word in one of several different syntactic contexts and were asked to generalize the word to objects varying from the standard in shape, size, or texture. In the count noun context, "This is a dax," all subjects showed the original shape bias even when the standard object's texture was made extremely salient. In the superordinate context, "This is a kind of dax," 5-year-olds and adults showed a weaker shape bias, broadening their acceptance of shape changes. In the adjective context, "This is a daxy one" 5-year-olds and adults narrowed their acceptance of texture changes and broadened acceptance of shape changes, as did 5-year-olds in another adjective context, "This is a dax one." Three-year-olds showed similar patterns of differentiation over the kind of and adjective contexts, but in a much weaker form. The results are discussed in terms of the representation of objects and their properties, the syntactic representation of these, and the joint interaction of syntax and perception in the early acquisition of words describing objects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)807-825
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1992
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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