Learning Adjective Meanings Through Variable Exemplars

Crystal Lee and Chigusa Kurumada

How have we learned the meaning of words like ‘full’ or ‘straight’? As adults, we know ‘full’ means ‘containing as much as possible without spilling over’. However, young learners often observe examples where ‘full’ is used to describe objects or situations that deviate from the prototypical definition, despite being contextually appropriate. e.g., a ‘full’ cup could be 90% full when transporting drinks. In fact, Syrett et al. (2010) found contrasting comprehension of absolute gradable adjectives (e.g., full, straight) between children and adults. When asked to give ‘the full cup’ with one 90% full cup and one 70% full cup present, four-year-olds were more willing to pass the 90% full cup. Contrastingly, adults were more likely to say that neither is ‘full’. We hypothesize that accumulated experiences allow adults to account for contextual contributions to word meaning: a 90% full cup is deemed full in an appropriate context (e.g., transporting drinks); otherwise any deviation from the prototypical meaning invalidates an instance to be judged ‘full’. We test this hypothesis by teaching adult subjects a novel gradable adjective; ‘pelty’ roughly meaning ‘tight-fitting’. 60 Subjects are randomly assigned either to With- or Without-context Condition. In Exposure, subjects watch 12 videos exemplifying the word use of objects that are tight-fitting to a varying degree. Those in the With-context condition receives contextual justification (e.g. A moderately tight-fitting shoe is still ‘pelty’ because it has to be worn with a thick sock) and those in the Without-context condition do not. In Test, participants see two novel objects (one 90% pelty and one 70% pelty) and a ‘neither’ option. We predict that subjects in the With-context condition, just as adult subjects in Syrett et al. (2010), would be more willing to select ‘neither’ than those in the Without-context condition.

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