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Researcher in Profile: Eve Clark on First Language Acquisition

By Chia-wa Yeh, Research Coordinator and Teacher

Eve Clark is professor of linguistics and symbolic systems at Stanford University. She has been conducting research at Bing Nursery School since the 1970s. Hundreds of children enrolled in the school have participated in her studies. Clark has published several books including Psychology and Language: An Introduction to Psycholin-guistics (with H. H. Clark), The Onto-genesis of Meaning, Acquisition of Romance with Special Reference to French, The Lexicon in Acquisition, and First Language Acquisition, due to appear this autumn.

What are your main research interests?

I’m interested in how children learn their first language. Much of my work has been done with children between about 18 months and 7 years old. Since I have been at Stanford, I have done nearly all my experimental work at Bing Nursery School.

My major concern throughout has been how children learn meanings. Meanings can be meanings of words, meanings of word endings, and meanings of constructions, and I have focused at various times on all of those. How we can look at this? How can we look at it experimentally, we can look at it in naturalistic settings, we can look at how meanings are acquired in conversations. My focus right now is on adult contributions to meaning acquisition is and the kinds of inferences young children can make.

Tell us more about your current research.

What we are trying to do now is look at the kinds of information from parental speech, from adult speech, that could be helpful in making inferences about the meaning of an unfamiliar word.

One of the things we’ve been studying in several experiments is some of the different ways to introduce words for things, words for parts, words for functions, and words for properties, to see which kinds of introduction children seem to show best learning for at particular ages. We are writing up some of this research now.

Could you say a bit more about your studies of children with their parents?

A major source of information for children about word meanings and the meanings of constructions is what their parents say to them. Because language is always interactive, we’re interested not only in what inferences children make but under what circumstances they make them when they hear their parents giving them particular pieces of information.

What we are doing are very detailed analysis of what children could infer, given what the adult just said. Do we see any evidence that they have made that inference? To find out, we have to do an analysis of each turn in the going conversation.

Could you give an example of this kind of parent-child interaction?

Well, take a one-and-a-half-year-old and a parent looking at a picture of an owl in a book. There’s a picture of owls. The child points and says “duck.” The parent then says something like, “Yes, those are birds. They’re called owls. Owls, that’s their name.” And only then does the child says “bird.” Now you can infer that the child has figured out that this probably isn’t a duck, but the parent is being approving and saying it’s a bird. So maybe whatever this thing is, ducks belong in the same domain, and the term for it seems to be “bird” but you’re not quite sure. Maybe “bird” and “duck” are at the same level of contrast. So you could say that the child infers that “bird” is an okay term. But the meaning of “owl” remains a question: how does an owl differ from ducks or birds? But the next thing the parent does is to go on to say, “And you know what the owl says? The owl goes hoo hoo.” At that point the child says “owl.” Notice that the parent has given a distinctive property and immediately the child tries out the new word. So this bird has a different sound to the sound that goes with ducks. That’s part of the contrast. And the parent is very approving and says, “Yes, owls go hoo.” And the last turn in the exchange is the child saying “hoo.”

So, what we do is look at the successive inferences the child could make. Now, we can’t say for sure the child has done this, but this would make sense of how the child acts, and which words the child is chooses to try out at each point in that exchange. What we find is that in many cases where the child is offered a new word, the subsequent exchange follows that pattern, a parent gives distinguishing information, that seems to encourage children to say the word even if they weren’t willing to say it before.

What conclusion do you draw from this work?

What you see is that parents talk a lot about properties and parts to 1- and 2-year-olds, but they don’t talk very much about functions. As children get older, parents talk much more about functions, of how things are used as well as what they look like, what properties they have, what parts they have and so on. So, what we are trying to do is to lay out, if you like, a map of the kinds of information parents offer at various ages, and a map of the range of inferences, given those offers, that children can make.

Early on, children seem to be pretty attentive to parts and properties. By three, they are equally attentive to other kinds of information. But, of course, all of this is relevant in working out what an expression means, so whether you are learning words at three or at thirty you can make use of all kinds of information. It is just that you get extremely good at absorbing it all in one bite as you get older. So it becomes much harder to observe this step-by-step process typical of very young children.

In the early nineties, you published articles on what young children know about constructing new words.

We did a lot of crosslinguistic research on what young children know about the internal structure of words and the meanings of the stems and endings they can use themselves. This research included work on the comprehension and production of novel compound words in English. For instance, I might ask a child to find me a picture of an apple-knife, where this is a novel compound in English. And what children see is a picture of an apple, a picture of a knife, a picture of a banana, and a picture of a spoon. What will they pick out if they hear “apple-knife?” Now, if they go for the heavily stressed word (I am talking about young two-year-olds, in the Two-Year-Old Room), then they might go for “apple.” If they only listen to the last word, they might go for “knife.” On the other hand, if they also know that a knife is the kind of thing being talked about when one says “apple-knife,” they could go for “the picture of the knife.” So, we also did a further study where we showed the same children a picture of, let’s say, an apple with a slice out of it and a knife on the plate versus a knife on its own, an apple on its own, and some other combination of fruit and utensil.

We did a variety of comprehension studies with both complex and simple pictures and we looked at which ones children chose consistently. What we found was that by two to two-and-a-half, they consistently pick out the second noun in novel compounds, which is the right one if there is only one thing pictured because that’s the kind of thing you are talking about, but they also know that the first noun in a compound is the modifier. And so, with complex pictures, they pick the appropriate combinations too. In their own speech, they produce compounds with the right stress pattern and with the head nouns in second position with no problems from age two on.

You did a very interesting study, early on, on children’s understanding of kinship terms. What were your findings?

In 1974, we looked at what children knew about kin terms. You take for granted they know “mother” and “father” but do they know that these are actually relational terms? And what about “brother,” “cousin,” “uncle,” and “aunt”? We asked children between about three-and-a-half and eight “What is a ‘brother’?” “What is a ‘sister?” “What is an ‘aunt’?” “What is an ‘uncle’?” We had a long list of kinship terms, for which we collected definitions, and then we analyzed those definitions.

We found that the relative complexity of the meaning of each term correlated with the order in which children learned them. But we also did one other thing—we sent a questionnaire back to every family in the study and asked several questions about which relatives each child actually had, for instance: “Does your child have an [aunt], and how often does she see this relative?” “Is this someone who lives in Palo Alto, so you see them frequently?” “Is it someone who lives elsewhere in the country, so you maybe see them once or twice a year?” “Is it someone who doesn’t even live in this country, so maybe they’ve heard about that person but never met them?” So we could also look at how familiar they were with each relative. It turns out that the major factor was the complexity of the term and the next was children’s familiarity with each relative.

A couple of years later, a post-doc of mine did an excellent follow-up study in Germany, where he looked at children in orphanages to see how well they knew kinship terms at particular ages. In general, they were delayed compared to children who lived in families but the ordering by complexity still held up.


Clark, E. V. (1993) The lexicon in acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, E. V. (2002) First Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, E. V. (2002) Making use of pragmatic inferences in the acquisition of meaning. In D. Beaver, S. Kaufmann, B. Z. Clark, & L. Casillas (Eds.), The construction of meaning. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications. Pp. 45-58.

Clark, E. V., Gelman, S. A., & Lane, N. M. (1985) Noun compounds and category structure in young children. Child Development 56, 84-94.

Deutsch, Werner (1979) The conceptual impact of linguistic input: a comparison of German family-children’s and orphans’ acquisition of kinship terms. Journal of Child Language 6, 313-327.

Haviland, S. E., & Clark, E. V. (1974) “This man’s father is my father’s son”: A study of the acquisition of English kin terms. Journal of Child Language 1, 23-47.