How Infants Build a Semantic System
Studies of early semantic development have traditionally described changes in the referential scope of early words, e.g., the range of objects that the infant associates with the word 'dog', as if infants learn object-label associations in isolation from each other. A proper understanding of semantic development should also provide an account of sensitivity to the meaning relations in the developing lexicon, and enumerate the the principles and processes by which the toddler constructs a network of meanings. In this talk, I will describe some recent graph-theoretic attempts to describe semantic networks in early childhood and experimental methods to investigate the development of the lexical-semantic system. I will argue that the rudiments of a lexical-semantic system are in place before the child's second birthday. I will discusss whether infants attempt to construct a semantic network from the beginning of lexical development, or whether the early semantic system consists of lexical islands to which entries are added in a piecemeal fashion, only later later to coalesce into a network of meanings.