Thursday, 14 August 2014

Lancaster University team probes how words like “woof” help children learn language

Photo: Cindy Cornett-Seigle (NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)

Words in the English language are structured to help children learn according to research led by Lancaster University.

Words like “woof” accurately represent the sound of a dog while sounds with similar meanings may have a similar structure eg the “sl” sound at the beginning of a word often has negative properties as in “slime, slur, slum, slug”.

Other patterns where words which sound similar have similar meanings include “sniff snout snuffle snot sneeze”, “bump hump lump rump mump” and “gleam glint glisten gloaming”.

An international team led by Professor Padraic Monaghan from the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University provides a comprehensive analysis of sound meaning structure using statistical techniques from biology and genetics for the first time.

The research, published in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B,  shows that the structure of the vocabulary in English helps both children and adults.

“Sounds relate to meaning for the words that children first encounter, addressing a critical question about how language is structured to aid learning," the Professor says.

“However, the later adult vocabulary is arbitrary, consistent with computational models of efficient language production and accurate language comprehension.”

The debate about whether the sound of words contains information about meaning has continued for over 2,300 years.

This issue lies at the foundation of modern linguistics and psychology of language, which has been brought into stark relief by recent studies of sound symbolism where words actually sound like their meaning.

Sound symbolism has been suggested to be prevalent in language and necessary for language acquisition by children.

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