Word learning in children: an examination of fast mapping

Child Dev. 1987 Aug;58(4):1021-34.


Children may be able to gain at least partial information about the meaning of a word from how it is used in a sentence, what words it is contrasted with, as well as other factors. This strategy, known as fast mapping, may allow the child to quickly hypothesize about the meaning of a word. It is not yet known whether this strategy is available to children in semantic domains other than color. In the first study, 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds were introduced to a novel color, shape, or texture word by contrasting the new term with a well-known word from that domain. They were then tested for their ability to produce and comprehend the new term and for whether they knew what semantic domain the word referred to. The results show that even 2-year-old children can quickly narrow down the meaning of a word in each of the semantic domains examined, although children learned more about shape terms than color or texture words. A second study explored the effects of several variables on children's ability to infer the meaning of a new term. One finding of this study was that if the context is compelling, children can figure out the meaning of a new word even without hearing an explicit linguistic contrast.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language Development*
  • Male
  • Semantics
  • Verbal Learning*
  • Vocabulary*