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Iconicity in the speech of children and adults

Perry, L. K., Perlman, M., Winter, B., Massaro, D. W., & Lupyan, G. (2018). Iconicity in the speech of children and adults. Developmental Science, 21: e12572. doi:10.1111/desc.12572.
Iconicity – the correspondence between form and meaning – may help young children learn to use new words. Early-learned words are higher in iconicity than later learned words. However, it remains unclear what role iconicity may play in actual language use. Here, we ask whether iconicity relates not just to the age at which words are acquired, but also to how frequently children and adults use the words in their speech. If iconicity serves to bootstrap word learning, then we would expect that children should say highly iconic words more frequently than less iconic words, especially early in development. We would also expect adults to use iconic words more often when speaking to children than to other adults. We examined the relationship between frequency and iconicity for approximately 2000 English words. Replicating previous findings, we found that more iconic words are learned earlier. Moreover, we found that more iconic words tend to be used more by younger children, and adults use more iconic words when speaking to children than to other adults. Together, our results show that young children not only learn words rated high in iconicity earlier than words low in iconicity, but they also produce these words more frequently in conversation – a pattern that is reciprocated by adults when speaking with children. Thus, the earliest conversations of children are relatively higher in iconicity, suggesting that this iconicity scaffolds the production and comprehension of spoken language during early development.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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