What are the word meanings like for young children?

When learning new words, young children do not always understand their meanings in the same way as adults do. Children often use words in a distinctive way. For instance, it is reported that one child used the word “nose” not only for the actual “nose,” but also for anything that is pullable such as “boot toe” and “handkerchief”!

It is well known that children’s early vocabulary is dominated by “names of things,” such as “shoe” and “cup.” Although the word “shoe” means an object category of shoes for adults, it may mean “putting shoes on” or “going for a walk” for children. Findings from our research suggest that children around the age of 1.5 years old understand the word “shoe” as the undifferentiated meaning of both things (“shoe”) and actions (“putting on”). Subsequently, as children approach the age of two, such word meanings differentiate into specific objects that are independent of how they are used.

Currently, we are further investigating how caregivers communicate the word meanings to their children during parent-child interactions, and how this communication changes depending on the children’s age. In addition, we are examining how children pay attention to objects and actions when hearing object-related words (e.g., cups, drinking, etc.).

This research will lead to a deeper understanding of young children’s unique semantic world and suggest more preferable ways of interacting with children at different stages of language development!


Hagihara, H., Yamamoto, H., Moriguchi, Y., & Sakagami, M. (2022). When “shoe” becomes free from “putting on”: The link between early meanings of object words and object-specific actions. Cognition, 226, 105177.

Hagihara, H., & Sakagami, M. (2020). Initial noun meanings do not differentiate into object categories: An experimental approach to Werner and Kaplan’s hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 190, 104710.