Contextual Factors in Child Adjective Comprehension

Wesley Orth, Amanda Pogue, and Chigusa Kurumada

This research investigates preschoolers’ understanding of adjectives (e.g., big, clean, metal). While adjectives are part of very basic vocabulary acquired early in development, it is not clear whether children’s conceptual understanding of them is equivocal to that of adults. In particular, I am interested in how they acquire subtle meaning differences across adjectives. Some adjectives require a listener to reason about other objects in order to verify that they are true (e.g., to say a cat is big, one needs to know how large cats usually are), whereas others do not (e.g., to say a cat is striped, one needs to know if that cat has at least one stripe). I created a guessing game to directly compare young children and adults in their comprehension of various adjective types. 16 preschoolers and 20 adults were asked to match a description of an object a card; either a face-up or face-down card. There were three trial types: 1) adjectives that require a comparison class (e.g., big), 2) adjectives that are binary in meaning and do not require a comparison class (e.g., striped), and 3) adjectives that denote a property of the noun (e.g., metal). Participants may or may not flip the face-down card before making a match, the likelihood of which tells us whether they thought a given adjective requires a comparison class. The results show that adults seek out comparative information for the type 1 adjectives but not other adjectives (60%, 11.25%, 9.16% respectively), whereas children seek out less comparative information when necessary, yet still show a similar pattern (35%, 17.5%, 20%). I conclude that children’s understanding of these types of adjectives is qualitatively similar to adults’ while there is a quantitative difference between them. I am currently running a follow up experiment to investigate the nature of the difference.

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