Toddlers assign word labels to multiple polysemous meanings

AbstractLanguages often reuse words for related meanings, such as baseball cap and bottle cap, a phenomenon known as polysemy. In English, it is estimated that 40-80% of all words are polysemous, yet little is known about children’s early knowledge of polysemous words. In an eye-tracking study with monolingual English-learning 2-year-olds (n=40), we found that participants recognized multiple conventional meanings for nouns. We further investigated whether toddlers succeeded because they were already familiar with multiple, learned meanings for words, or whether they simply guessed the correct target based on a single or vague meaning. Recognition of conventional English meanings (baseball cap, bottle cap) was significantly higher than that of novel extension meanings (e.g., a lid) for the same label (cap). These results show that toddlers’ knowledge of polysemy goes beyond a single or vague representation. Word learning theories must be further developed to account for these complexities in learning.

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