Some words are easier to form an image of than others. Think of the word moon: perhaps you think of a pale yellow crescent shape, or an illuminating white circle in front of a smoky blue backdrop. Regardless, the word has a high degree of imageability. Now think of the word truth: what exactly does the word truth by itself look like? Thinking of a context in which truth is applicable might be somewhat easy, but it is likely that no immediate image of the word alone is brought to mind. This scale of how easy or how difficult it is to form a mental image of a word is referred to as imageability. Words like moon, with a high degree of imageability, are also called concrete. Words like truth, with low imageability, are categorized as abstract.
Imageability: how easy or difficult it is to form a mental image of a word.
Nouns are often thought to dominate babies’ earliest vocabulary. This seems reasonable; nouns are often labels objects that are easier to map in the physical world through, for instance, sight and touch. That might be why words like ball, blanket, dog, or cat are typically some of the first words babies will say. However, the meaning of the word doesn’t depend on how it interacts with the structure of the sentence, or syntax, which is what it means to be a noun. So perhaps how early babies usually learn a given word has more to do with how imageable the word is than its grammatical category, or part of speech.
Grammatical category: the part of speech of a word, such as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc. that determines where it appears in the sentence structure.
One study looked at the relationship between imageability and how old kids are on average when they learn a specific word. One group of participants was asked to guess the age that they learned a word for several hundred nouns and verbs. Another group of participants was asked to rate the imageability for the same nouns and verbs. The results showed that words with high imageability were also words that were probably acquired earlier. That means the easier it is to form an image of a word, the earlier it is likely to be part of a child’s vocabulary. Nouns were rated as more imageable than verbs on average, which might help explain why kids usually learn more nouns before they learn verbs.
Another study examined the relationship between imageability and age of learning words to see if imageability was more important than grammatical category in helping kids learn new words. They first had a group of participants rate words on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being words that are the hardest to picture (e.g., why) and 7 being the most imageable words. This sample included 164 nouns and 102 verbs. One of the least imageable words was the verb “to dream” and one of the most imageable was the noun “banana.” Second, they found the average age of learning of these words from a set of thousands of surveys called the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory: Words and Sentences. The survey is given to parents of kids between the ages of 8 and 30 months old. Parents are asked to check off words that their child understands or says; the researchers considered the “age of acquisition” of each word to be when at least 50% of the children are saying that word. Just like the last study, words with higher imageability ratings tend to be learned earlier than words with lower imageability ratings.
Age of acquisition: the age at which, on average, 50% of kids are saying a specific word.
However, language development researchers want to know the processes in a baby’s mind that help them learn language, and what stages language takes as they learn it during their toddler years, and we still don’t know if imageability is more important for learning new words than their grammatical class. Knowing whether imagebility or syntactic category predicts when a baby will learn a word gives us a little window into their mind and helps us figure out if their environment influences language learning or if language input and their mental calculations are more critical.
Through regression models, which are a type of mathematical analysis that lets us compare how different factors (like grammatical class vs. imageability) might be related in different ways to an outcome (like how early a word is learned), the researchers if this previous study found that imageability explains more of the variation in age of acquisition than grammatical category does. So, it seems, at least from this study, that imageability is more relevant to the age kids learn a word than grammatical category is. Maybe being able to form a picture of something helps babies learn what it’s called!
Regression models: mathematical analysis that compares how different variables may affect an outcome.
So, you may have heard that the words babies learn are always going to be nouns. That might be true, since nouns tend to be more imageable than verbs, but it seems like the first words babies learn might not actually be based on their grammatical category, but instead, how imageable the word is!
Altarriba, J., Bauer, L.M. & Benvenuto, C. Concreteness, context availability, and imageability ratings and word associations for abstract, concrete, and emotion words. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers 31, 578–602 (1999). https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03200738
McDonough, C., Song, L., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Lannon, R. (2011). An image is worth a thousand words: why nouns tend to dominate verbs in early word learning. Developmental science, 14(2), 181–189. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.00968.
Bella is a sophomore at Duke University studying psychology with a minor in Latin and chemistry. She is particularly interested in seeing how bi/multilingualism and different cultural backgrounds can impact the development of language learning in children, as well as how adults translate baby language. On campus, she is a member of the Digital Health Communities Bass Connections team, Duke American Medical Women’s Association, and the Women’s Club Lacrosse team. You can find her going on runs or exploring the Durham food scene off campus.