How Children Learn the Meanings of Words

From Learning, Development, and Conceptual Change

How Children Learn the Meanings of Words

By Paul Bloom

A Bradford Book





How do children learn that the word "dog" refers not to all four-legged animals, and not just to Ralph, but to all members of a particular species? How do they learn the meanings of verbs like "think," adjectives like "good," and words for abstract entities such as "mortgage" and "story"? The acquisition of word meaning is one of the fundamental issues in the study of mind.

According to Paul Bloom, children learn words through sophisticated cognitive abilities that exist for other purposes. These include the ability to infer others' intentions, the ability to acquire concepts, an appreciation of syntactic structure, and certain general learning and memory abilities. Although other researchers have associated word learning with some of these capacities, Bloom is the first to show how a complete explanation requires all of them. The acquisition of even simple nouns requires rich conceptual, social, and linguistic capacities interacting in complex ways.

This book requires no background in psychology or linguistics and is written in a clear, engaging style. Topics include the effects of language on spatial reasoning, the origin of essentialist beliefs, and the young child's understanding of representational art. The book should appeal to general readers interested in language and cognition as well as to researchers in the field.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262024693 314 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262523295 314 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • ... this book is likely to have a profound impact on the field of child language.

    Anne Bezuidenhout

    Metapsychology Online Review


  • This is a tremendously important book. It provides a new theoretical perspective on language learning, consolidating and making sense of a wealth of new research findings.

    Susan A. Gelman

    University of Michigan

  • In lucid prose that will be accessible even to beginners, Paul Bloom weaves together everything that is known about word-learning—from when it starts to how it depends on a child's understanding of the world—into a sophisticated, nuanced tapestry that will dazzle researchers. What is particularly impressive about the book is that Bloom manages to steer between the extremes of nativism and empiricism that have too often stifled progress in our field. Neither committed blindly to nativism nor to its opposite, Bloom accepts nativism where it is needed, and rejects it where it is not. A tour de force.

    Gary F. Marcus

    Associate Professor of Psychology, New York University

  • This elegant book is ostensibly on how children learn words, and indeed, Bloom has many original and surprising things to say on this matter. But the book is much, much more—a tour de force romp through topics ranging from children's understanding of art to their understanding of number, from their understanding of bodies to their understanding of souls. It's a great read. Anybody concerned with langauge, cognition, or development will find much of interest here.

    Susan Carey

    Department of Psychology, New York University

  • Paul Bloom offers us an intriguing account of how children grasp meaning, how this process is linked to their gorwing appreciation of how other people think, and how they convey their views and intentions in communication. The story he tells here is clear, engaging, and well-documented, with a pleasant absence of contention and polemic. He provides an excellent accounting of where we are now, and points to the many questions that remain to be answered. This book is an excellent introduction to this aspect of language acquisition.

    Eve V. Clark

    Professor of Linguistics & Symbolic Systems, Stanford University