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Lexical Bootstrapping in Child Language Acquisition and Child Conceptual Development

Apart from some few exceptions (Brown 1958, Nelson 1973), the research on child lexical development did not receive much attention from students of child language in the 1960s and 1970s. In opposition to some statements found in the more recent literature (Rothweiler & Meibauer 1999), this fact is not really surprising when one considers the very influential role then played by formal linguistics with its primacy of syntactic structures and the view of lexicon and semantics as something rather epiphenomenal. From the 1980s on, this state of affairs has changed dramatically.

For one thing, over the last 25 years or so, there has been more and more interest in topics related to child lexical acquisition. Over these several years, the research has issued many relevant theoretical insights resp. assumptions, and methodologies about lexical development, such as the view of individual differences in early vocabulary composition in terms of a continuum between referential and expressive style (Nelson 1973) and the holophrastic nature of early words (Nelson 1985), the differentiation between expressive and receptive vocabulary, as well as the use of correlational methods (Bates et al. 1988), or the role of domain-general cognitive skills of categorisation and theory of mind (Tomasello 2003), amongst several others.

Secondly and most importantly, this body of research (much of which has been done within functionalist-cognitivist frameworks) seems to allow for the formulation of general assumptions concerning child language development in general, as well as the interplay between language and conceptual development. Thus, especially studies focussing on within- and cross-domain developmental correlations seem to provide evidence for a Lexical Bootstrapping (Dale et al. 2000, Dionne et al. 2003), i.e., the assumption that early lexical development, as mapping of words to referents or their conceptualisations, and even to whole propositions, is not only prior to, but also pre-requisite for the emergence of morpho-syntactic constructions (which, incidentally, are not fundamentally different from words, in that they are equally form-meaning pairs). The notion of lexical bootstrapping presupposes an early stage in lexical development characterized by the learning of archilexemes, a term originally proposed by Zemb (1978), as grammarless lexemes composed of form and concept only, here understood as the means by which the child begins to cognize and categorize the world. Such assumption on the fundamental role of early lexical acquisition for later language development as a whole challenges the view about the primacy of syntax over lexicon and semantics that has been postulated in these 50 years of formal linguistics.

For our special paper session, we would like to invite researchers interested in an exploratory discussion about lexical bootstrapping in child language and conceptual development, and willing to present their own studies as contributions to this discussion.

Empirical, methodological and theoretical contributions dealing with aspects of word learning in the one-word phase (and perhaps also before) that might predict diverse aspects of later language and conceptual development of typically developing and impaired children may focus on one or more of the following questions and topics (evidently, other suggestions are equally welcome):

  • How can measures of, and assumptions on, early lexical development (vocabulary size, vocabulary composition, vocabulary growth rate, vocabulary style, vocabulary spurt, critical mass, others?) be correlated to measures of later grammatical emergence and development (emergence and proportion of multi-word utterances, Mean Length of Utterance, development of inflectional paradigms and use of function words, realisation of argument constructions, others?) How reliable are such correlations?
  • How can the study of early lexical development shed light on the issue of individual variance and developmental language disorders? Can aspects of early word learning (expressive vs. referential style, dissimilar timing of vocabulary development, peculiarities in vocabulary composition, peculiarities in the conceptual mapping, others?) provide criteria for a differentiation between mere individual variance and developmental disorder, as well as for a differentiation between transient and persistent disorders? Can such aspects be used in the context of early diagnosis of such disorders?
  • Which cognitive processes underlie word learning as both word-to-concept mapping and categorization task? Are there constraints and principles at play? What is the nature of such constraints are they domain(=language) specific or domain general? How are they related to later language and conceptual development?
  • Can early words (at least partially) be seen as holophrases in that they (at least partially) refer to whole propositions? Which developmental change(s) takes place in the transition from holophrastic one-word utterances to multi-word utterances?
  • Which evidences can be drawn from studies of word learning in children with cognitive developmental disorders (Down Syndrome, Williams Syndrome, others?), as well as in blind and deaf children?
  • Which insights can be drawn from research based on (i) corpora analyses; (ii) computer learning simulations; (iii) neural activation in experimental situations, such as categorisation tasks; (iv) lexical/conceptual processing in adults with and without language disorders (e.g. aphasia)?
  • Which similarities, differences or peculiarities can be observed when comparing mono- and multilingual word learning, as well as comparing monolingual and cross-linguistic studies?


Depending on the number of contributions, the special session will take place at one or two days of the conference.

The theme session will be framed by a paper introducing the topic of lexical bootstrapping in child language and conceptual development and, again depending on the number of contributions, one or two discussion rounds.

Please send only detailed abstracts (2 pages), in which you make clear how your study is related to the topic of lexical bootstrapping in child language and conceptual development.

The deadline for abstract submission is 15 May 2006. Participants will be notified of the acceptance of their papers by 1 July 2006. Participants should send us an updated abstract of their papers by 21 September 2006.

The conference languages are German and English.

The organizers are investigating the possibility of, after review, publishing the presented papers in a compilation on lexical bootstrapping in child language and conceptual development.



  • Bates, E., Bretherton, I., & Snyder, L. 1988. From First Words to Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Brown, R. 1958. Words and things. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  • Dale, P. S., Dionne, G., Eley, T. C., & Plomin, R. 2000. Lexical and grammatical development: A behavioural genetic perspective. Journal of Child Language, 27/3, 619-642.
  • Dionne, G., Dale, P. S., Boivin, M., & Plomin R. 2003. Genetic evidence for bidirectional effects of early lexical and grammatical development. Child Development, 74, 394-412.
  • Hoey, M. 2005. Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. London & New York: Routledge.
  • Marchman, V. A. & Bates, E. 1994. Continuity in lexical and morphological development: A test of the critical mass. Journal of Child Language, 21/2, 339-366.
  • Nelson, K. (1973). Structure and strategy in learning to talk. Chicago: Univ. Press.
  • Nelson, K. (1985). Making sense: The acquisition of shared meaning. Developmental psychology series. Orlando: Academic Press.
  • Pinker, S. 1984. Language Learnability and Language Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.
  • Rothweiler, M. & Meibauer, J. (eds.) (1999). Das Lexikon im Sprcherwerb: Ein Überblick. In: Meibauer, J., & Rothweiler, M. (Eds.). (1999). Das Lexikon im Spracherwerb. UTB für Wissenschaft;Mittlere Reihe, 2039. Tübingen: Francke.
  • Rescorla, L., Mirak, J., & Singh, L. (2000). Vocabulary growth in late talkers: Lexical development from 2;0 to 3;0. Journal of Child Language, 27, 293-311.
  • Zemb, J. M. 1978. Vergleichende Grammatik Französisch Deutsch: Comparaison de deux systèmes. Mannheim et al.: Bibliographisches Institut.
  • Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.