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by Paul Bloom
MIT Press, 2000
Review by Anne Bezuidenhout, Ph.D. on Jun 18th 2002

How Children Learn the Meanings of Words

This book was awarded the 2002 Eleanor Macoby Book Award by the American Psychological Association. This award is given to a book that has had or promises to have a profound impact on developmental psychology. Thus the book has already been judged by other professionals to be an important one. Yet the book is clearly intended also for a general audience, and appears to already have had some success at attracting such an audience. (For instance, Bloom was interviewed about this book on the NPR talk show The Todd Mundt Show on June 3, 2002). It is written in a clear, accessible style and doesn’t have any of the detailed reports of statistical analyses that are de rigueur in articles published in professional psychological journals. Data tables and graphs are kept to a minimum, and where they are used they are usually very easy to interpret.

Bloom says that each of the 9 main chapters is “self-contained enough to be read on its own, but they do have a logical progression, and each rests to some extent on evidence and arguments introduced earlier.” (p. 22) I agree, though I would say that to appreciate the main points Bloom is arguing for, it is necessary to read chaps. 2 – 6 and 8. The remaining chapters do seem relatively independent, taking up interesting but somewhat tangential issues, such as what is involved in distinguishing representation from reality and how children learn to name pictures, how children learn number words, and what the relation is between thought and language. (Personally I found these chapters to be amongst the most interesting, so I am not suggesting that they be skipped!)

The main purpose of Bloom’s book is to explode some myths about early word learning. He begins his book with the following scenario:

It looks simple. A 14-month-old toddles after the family dog, smacking it whenever she gets close. The dog warily moves under the table. “Dog”, the child’s mother tells her. “You’re chasing the dog. That’s the dog.” The child stops, points a pudgy hand at the dog, and shrieks, “Daw!” The mother smiles: “Yes, dog.”

Many people have the impression that word leaning is the simplest part of language learning, and that children learn words by a simple associative process in which caregivers name objects in the children’s environment, thereby enabling the children to set up mappings between words and their meanings. Bloom argues that early word learning is far from simple and in fact relies on several sorts of capacities. These include “an understanding that the world contains objects, events, and relations, kinds and individuals; an appreciation that the nature of some categories does not reduce to their superficial features; an ability to appreciate the referential intentions of others, to understand what they are referring to when they communicate.” (p. 258) As Bloom goes on to observe, many philosophers and psychologists have thought that these capacities are the product of word learning, so his claim that they are prerequisites for early word learning stands the traditional associationist picture on its head.

One of the central anti-associationist claims is defended in chapter 3. It is that early word learning requires children to recognize a speaker’s referential intentions. This means that even very young infants must have some sort of “theory of mind”. Some of the main evidence in favor of this claim comes from the very interesting work of Dare Baldwin and her colleagues. In one experiment children were given an object to play with while another was placed in a bucket. While the child’s attention was focused on the object she had been given, the experimenter looked at the object in the bucket and said “It’s a modi”. When later asked to find the modi, children as young as 18 months were able to pick out the object that the adult had named. In other words, they did not simply associate the novel name with the novel object that they were paying attention to when the experimenter said “It’s a modi”. Instead, children were able to infer the speaker’s referential intentions (presumably by relying on cues such as the direction of the adult’s gaze – although gaze following itself is something that children seem to engage in only when they are interacting with entities that show signs of having intentional states and of acting in a goal-directed manner).

This chapter assembles a lot of other evidence in favor of the claim that a “theory of mind” (ToM) is essential to early word learning, as well as addressing some of the main objections that might be raised against this claim. The chapter also contains a section on autism and language learning. It has been claimed that autism involves a deficit in the “theory of mind module” (ToMM), the faculty of the mind that enables normal people to understand the beliefs, desires and intentions of others. This raises the question of how autistic individuals can learn word meanings if they have a deficit in their ToM and yet a ToM is a prerequisite for word learning. Bloom presents evidence that severely autistic individuals do indeed have problems learning words, and that those “who have relatively preserved language skills are the same individuals who tend to perform well on tasks designed to tap their understanding of the thoughts of other people.” (p.80).

Many people have been convinced by the work of Perner & Wimmer, Wellman, and others that a theory of mind is a late acquisition, since children younger than three years of age do badly on the so-called “false belief” task, which is supposed to be a test of a child’s ability to ascribe representational mental states to others. In one version of this task an object is hidden in one location in the presence of the child, an experimenter and a puppet. The puppet then “leaves” the scene (often by simply being hidden under the table). After the puppet leaves, the experimenter moves the object to a second location. The child is then asked where she thinks the puppet will look for the object when the puppet returns. Children under the age of three generally have difficulties with this task, and say that the puppet will look in the second location, where the object actually is, even though the puppet was (supposedly) not present when the object was moved, and so should be assumed not to know it has been moved. If a theory of mind is a late acquisition, and yet children have begun to learn words before their second birthdays, then it may seem that we are forced to the conclusion that word learning cannot require a theory of mind. I believe that this is a mistake. Whatever the “false belief” task is testing, it does not show that young children do not have a theory of mind. Bloom does a convincing job in his book of assembling evidence that children as young as 15 months have an awareness of the intentions of others, and that they are able to harness their “mind-reading” abilities in word learning.

I have focused on children’s theory of mind in this review, but Bloom’s book explores a wealth of other issues. Besides the myth that word learning is a simple associationist process, there are other myths that Bloom tries to explode. For instance, children do not have to have adults around to name objects for them in order to learn words. In some cultures adults do not engage in the sort of object labeling practices that some Western parents engage in. Yet children in those cultures still learn the meanings of words. They are able to infer the meanings of words by observing the conversational exchanges of others.

Another popular conception that Bloom challenges is the idea that the process of word learning imposes some sort of conceptual order on the child’s awareness of the world, which is initially a “blooming, buzzing confusion”. On the contrary, Bloom assembles evidence that children bring some already well-formed conceptual apparatus to bear on the task of word learning. For example, they must already have concepts of ordinary middle-sized objects and their identity and persistence conditions. They must have some conception (perhaps arrived at by abstraction and generalization from their concept of an object) of parts and collections of objects. They must have an appreciation of the fact that what unites objects under a common natural or artifact kind is often something unobservable. And as already mentioned at some length, they must have some concept of other speakers as intentional agents. In short, children bring both a theory of objects and a theory of mind to the task of word learning.

An important component of word learning that I haven’t yet mentioned is the role of syntax in word learning. Bloom discusses this in chapters 5, 8 and 9. In these chapters he discusses how children learn proper names, pronouns, substance names, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, and number words. In all these cases children must be relying partly on syntactic clues to figure out what sort of thing a word is referring to (whether it refers to an individual or to a kind, whether to an object kind or a substance kind, whether to a property or a relation, whether to a property of an object or a property of a set of objects). For instance, English-speaking children are sensitive to the different syntactic environments in which mass and count nouns occur and can use this as a clue to whether they are dealing with an object kind or a substance kind. (Children learning languages that do not syntactically mark the mass/count distinction – such as Chinese – must obviously be relying on non-syntactic means to figure this out). However, Bloom stresses that such syntactic clues are only a part of the story and that it is syntactic abilities together with a theory of objects and a theory of mind that together explain early word learning. Moreover, he maintains that some ur-words must be learned independently of any syntactic bootstrapping.

Besides the popular misconceptions about word learning that Bloom wishes to undermine, he also takes on certain claims that have been made by other child language researchers. For instance, he raises some skeptical worries about the claim that children go through a word spurt at around 50 words. The idea of such a word spurt may be more terminological than real. A child could satisfy the criteria for having experienced a word spurt on some definitions (e.g., learning 10 or more new object words in a 3 week period) even though she learned these words at a steady rate, so that nothing spurt-like happened in the child’s experience. Bloom also challenges the idea that there is any sort of discontinuity between early word learning and later word learning, or that children are better than adults at word learning. There is no “critical period” for word learning as is arguably the case for productive syntax. In general Bloom rejects the idea that word learning is under the control of special-purpose language mechanisms. According to Bloom, children rely on capacities that are used also in other non-language domains, such as the domains of social cognition and of spatial reasoning.

In this brief review I have not been able to do justice to this richly argued book. I concur with those who awarded it the Eleanor Macoby prize that this book is likely to have a profound impact on the field of child language. It articulates a framework that challenges the traditional associationist picture of word learning, and does an excellent job of assembling the evidence that we already have in favor of a rival anti-associationist view. It also does a good job of pointing out where there are gaps in our understanding and where further research will be required.


© 2002 Anne Bezuidenhout


Anne Bezuidenhout teaches at the University of South Carolina in the Philosophy Department and the Linguistics Program. Her research interests lie mainly in the philosophy of language, psycholinguistics and experimental pragmatics. Her work has appeared in such journals as Philosophical Review, Mind, Noûs, Mind & Language, Journal of Pragmatics and Pragmatics & Cognition.