Iconic words critical to vocabulary acquisition in young children


Instructors and parents of young children should recognize the value of iconic words – whose form is linked to their meaning – in effective language learning, especially during the formative ages of 6 to 11 months. Image by Shutterstock.

Words whose form is linked to their meaning are critical to effective language learning in young children.

— By Marcus Banks

New research on vocabulary acquisition in the first years of a child’s life highlights the importance of iconic words in early language learning.

The connection between the form of most words and their meanings is arbitrary. For example, there is no particular reason why we call the clothes we wear while sleeping “pajamas.” This is simply a word we learn through experience, which could just as easily have been called many other things.

Some words, though, do provide a tight connection between their form and meaning – for example, “shh” or “grr.” Scholars of language acquisition call such words iconic. They include onomatopoeic words that sound like what they mean, as well as cases where the way a word is said corresponds to its meaning.

Iconic word usage is relatively rare, especially among adults who have fully mastered the vocabularies of a given language. While this may suggest that iconicity is a mere trifle without any real impact, this is far from the case. According to a recent paper in Frontiers in Communication, iconic words are critical to effective language learning and vocabulary acquisition in young children.

In the paper, researchers Dominic Massaro and Marcus Perlman describe two different efforts to quantify this. The first analyzes the influence of different variables on the productive vocabularies of children up to 4 years of age – that is, on the words children actually speak rather than the words they understand. The goal was to determine, given the variety of potential characteristics of the words children hear, the independent effect of iconicity on their spoken word choices.

Variables studied included iconicity, the difficulty of articulating a given word, and parental input on children’s spoken word choices. Other variables included the concreteness of a word (the extent to which a word can be experienced by the senses) and imageability (the extent to which a word evokes a mental image). These two attributes of words are often studied together as one variable. The last variable was systematicity, a measure of the degree to which words with similar meanings have similar forms (i.e., “glisten” and “glimmer” have similar meanings).

Using various datasets that track the input of these variables on spoken word choices, Massaro and Perlman show that iconicity was particularly important to word choices between the ages of 6-11 months old. As children grew older, the other variables grew in importance and the impact of iconicity faded.

In their second approach, Massaro and Perlman drill down into a closer understanding of the word choices of individual children, complementing the macro-scale of the first effort. Here they focused on both productive and receptive vocabulary – the latter including words children can understand even if they cannot yet speak them. Working from a parental checklist of words their young children either speak or understand, the researchers show that iconicity is especially important to a child’s early productive vocabulary and vital to their receptive vocabulary as well. As children learn the meanings of more words, as well as how to articulate those words, the influence of iconicity fades.

Given the arbitrary connection between the form of most words and their meaning, it is not surprising that the role of iconicity recedes in importance as we age. Maintaining strict fealty to iconicity would become a barrier to learning many words, especially words for abstract concepts.

That said, instructors and parents of young children would do well to recognize the value of iconicity at this formative time of life. As Massaro and Perlman note, “these new results support the hypothesis that a child’s first words tend to be iconic.”

Original research paper: Quantifying Iconicity’s Contribution during Language Acquisition: Implications for Vocabulary Learning

Corresponding author: Dominic W. Massaro