The importance of shape in early lexical learning

Barbara Landau, Linda B. Smith, Susan S. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We ask if certain dimensions of perceptual similarity are weighted more heavily than others in determining word extension. The specific dimensions examined were shape, size, and texture. In four experiments, subjects were asked either to extend a novel count noun to new instances or, in a nonword classification task, to put together objects that go together. The subjects were 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, and adults. The results of all four experiments indicate that 2- and 3-year-olds and adults all weight shape more heavily than they do size or texture. This observed emphasis on shape, however, depends on the age of the subject and the task. First, there is a developmental trend. The shape bias increases in strength and generality from 2 to 3 years of age and more markedly from early childhood to adulthood. Second, in young children, the shape bias is much stronger in word extension than in nonword classification tasks. These results suggest that the development of the shape bias originates in language learning-it reflects a fact about language-and does not stem from general perceptual processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)299-321
Number of pages23
JournalCognitive Development
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1988
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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