The ‘blowfish effect’: Children learn new words like adults do

Posted on August 13, 2019

Researchers found that when children are learning new nouns, they use what they already know about these objects – how typical or unique they are for their categories, to help them figure out what the words mean.

Researchers coined this the ‘blowfish effect’. This is because if children see a blowfish (or a greyhound or an unusual tropical flower) and learn a new word with it, they will assume it refers to that specific type of object and not the broader category of fish (or dogs or flowers).

This study helps in language development – many years of studies have shown that children learn new words, and it is assumed that the word mean something general. However, this study shows that children can learn more specific terms like blowfish and greyhound – instead of just fish and dogs. Should their parents see an unusual fish and they call it something, they will learn that it refers to that specific fish.

In this research, the team found that both children and adults processed the new words in the same way. When either of the group saw an unusual dog labelled a ‘fep’ – they were more likely to interpret it more narrowly – as meaning of that type of dog and not ‘dogs’ in general. These findings run counter to the idea that children will always assume that new words should be interpreted as general terms.

Furthermore, researchers also found that the more ‘typical’ an example looks – the more likely that children will assume it as a general term. This finding helps shed light on the mysteries and intricacies of language development.

Source material from Science Daily

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