The social-pragmatic theory of word learning

Michael Tomasello


Some researchers have tried to explain early word learning via garden-variety learning processes and others by invoking linguistically specific “constraints” that help children to narrow down the referential possibilities. The social-pragmatic approach to word learning argues that children do not need specifically linguistic constraints to learn words, but rather what they need are flexible and powerful social-cognitive skills that allow them to understand the communicative intentions of others in a wide variety of interactive situations. A series of seven word learning studies demonstrate something of the range of communicative situations in which children can learn new words. These situations include many non-ostensive contexts in which no one is intentionally teaching the child a new word and the intended referent is not perceptually present at the time of the new word’s introduction. Language acquisition in general, and word learning in particular, is best seen as a special case of cultural learning in which children attempt to discern adults’ intentions toward their intentions toward things in the world.

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