Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-8bbf57454-kknlk Total loading time: 0.189 Render date: 2022-01-24T04:57:20.735Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

Imageability predicts the age of acquisition of verbs in Chinese children*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2008

University of Delaware
University of Delaware
Temple University
Neumann College
University of Michigan
Address for correspondence: Weiyi Ma, School of Education, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716. e-mail:


Verbs are harder to learn than nouns in English and in many other languages, but are relatively easy to learn in Chinese. This paper evaluates one potential explanation for these findings by examining the construct of imageability, or the ability of a word to produce a mental image. Chinese adults rated the imageability of Chinese words from the Chinese Communicative Development Inventory (Tardif et al., in press). Imageability ratings were a reliable predictor of age of acquisition in Chinese for both nouns and verbs. Furthermore, whereas early Chinese and English nouns do not differ in imageability, verbs receive higher imageability ratings in Chinese than in English. Compared with input frequency, imageability independently accounts for a portion of the variance in age of acquisition (AoA) of verb learning in Chinese and English.

Copyright © 2008 Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



We thank our laboratory coordinators Amanda Brandone and Rebecca Seston, graduate student Lulu Song, and StatLab at the University of Delaware for their assistance on this paper. We also thank all the participants in China. This research was funded by joint grants to the second and third authors: From NSF, Grants SBR9601306 and SBR9615391 and from NIH, RO1HD050199. The Mandarin CDI data were collected with the assistance of the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong's Earmarked Research Grant # HKU 7158/99H to Paul Fletcher and Twila Tardif.


Bates, E., Chen, S., Tzeng, O., Li, P. & Opie, M. (1991). The noun–verb problem in Chinese aphasia. Brain and language 41, 203–33.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bird, H., Franklin, S. & Howard, D. (2001). Age of acquisition and imageability ratings for a large set of words, including verbs and function words. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, and Computers 33, 7379.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bloom, L., Lightbown, P. & Hood, L. (1975). Structure and variation in child language. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 40(2) (Serial No. 160).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bornstein, M., Cote, L., Maital, S., Painter, K., Park, S.-Y., Pascual, L., Pêcheux, M.-G., Ruel, J., Venuti, P. & Vyt, A. (2004). Cross-linguistic analysis of vocabulary in young children: Spanish, Dutch, French, Hebrew, Italian, Korean and American English. Child Development 75, 1115–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brandone, A., Pence, K., Golinkoff, R. M. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2007). Action speaks louder than words: Young children differentially weight perceptual, social, and linguistic cues to learn verbs. Child Development 78, 1322–42.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Carroll, J. B. & White, M. N. (1973). Word frequency and age of acquisition as determiners of picture-naming latency. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 25, 8595.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Childers, J. & Tomasello, M. (2001). The role of pronouns in young children's acquisition of the English transitive construction. Developmental Psychology 37, 739–48.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Choi, S. & Bowerman, M. (1991). Learning to express motion events in English and Korean: The influence of language-specific lexicalization patterns. Cognition 41, 83121.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Da, J. (2004). A corpus-based study of character and bigram frequencies in Chinese e-texts and its implications for Chinese language instruction. In Pu, Z., Xie, T. & Xu, J (eds), Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on New Technologies in Teaching and Learning Chinese, 501–11. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press.Google Scholar
Fenson, L., Dale, P. S., Reznick, J. S., Bates, E., Thal, D. J. & Pethick, S. J. (1994). Variability in early communicative development. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 59(5) (Serial No 242).CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Franklin, S., Howard, D. & Patterson, K. (1995). Abstract word anomia. Cognitive Neuropsychology 12, 549–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gentner, D. (1982). Why nouns are learned before verbs: Linguistic relativity versus natural partitioning. In Kuczaj, S. A.(IIed.), Language development Vol. 2: Language, thought, and culture, 301–34. Hillside, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
Gentner, D. & Boroditsky, L. (2001). Individuation, relativity, and early word learning. In Bowerman, M. & Levinson, S. C. (eds), Language, culture, & cognition: Vol. 3. Language acquisition and conceptual development, 215–56. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gilhooly, K. J. & Logie, R. H. (1980). Age of acquisition, imagery, concreteness, familiarity and ambiguity measures for 1944 words. Behavior Research Methods and Instrumentation 12, 395427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gillette, J., Gleitman, H., Gleitman, L. & Lederer, A. (1999). Human simulations of vocabulary learning. Cognition 73, 135–76.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Golinkoff, R. M., Chung, H. L., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Liu, J., Bertenthal, B. I., Brand, R., Maguire, M. J. & Hennon, E. A. (2002). Young children can extend motion verbs to point-light displays. Developmental Psychology 4, 604–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Imai, M., Li, L., Haryu, E., Okada, H., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. & Shigematsu, J. (in press). Novel noun and verb learning in Chinese, English, and Japanese. Child Development.Google ScholarPubMed
Kersten, A. W. & Smith, L. B. (2002). Attention to novel objects during verb learning. Child Development 73, 93109.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Langacker, R. W. (1987). Nouns and verbs. Language 63, 5394.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lee, J. & Naigles, L. R. (2005). Input to verb learning in Mandarin Chinese: A role for syntactic bootstrapping. Developmental Psychology 41, 529–40.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Leung, V. Y. K. (2001). Cantonese-speaking children's early acquisition of nouns and verbs. Unpublished manuscript, University of Hong Kong.Google Scholar
Maguire, M. J., Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R. (2006). A unified theory of word learning: Putting verb acquisition in context. In Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R. M. (eds), Action meets word: How children learn verbs, 364–91. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Masterson, J. & Druks, J. (1998). Description of a set of 164 nouns and 102 verbs matched for printed word frequency, familiarity and age-of-acquisition. Journal of Neurolinguistics 11, 331–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McDonough, C., Song, L., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M. & Lannon, B. (2008). An image is worth a thousand words: Why nouns tend to dominate verbs in early word learning. Manuscript submitted for publication.Google Scholar
Paivio, A., Yuille, J. C. & Madigan, S. A. (1968). Concreteness, imagery and meaningfulness values for 925 nouns. Journal of Experimental Psychology 76, 125.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Plaut, D. C. & McClelland, J. L. (1993). Generalization with componential attractors: Word and nonword reading in an attractor network. In Proceedings of the 15th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 824–29. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
Sandhofer, C. M., Smith, L. B. & Luo, J. (2000). Counting nouns and verbs in the input: Differential frequencies, different kinds of learning? Journal of Child Language 27, 561–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Snedeker, J. & Gleitman, L. (2004). Why is it hard to label our concepts? In Hall, D. G. & Waxman, S. R. (eds), Weaving a lexicon, 257–94. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Strain, E., Patterson, K. & Seidenberg, M. S. (1995). Semantic effects in single word naming. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition 21, 1140–54.Google ScholarPubMed
Tabachnick, B. G. & Fidell, L. S. (2007). Using multivariate statistics. Boston: Pearson.Google Scholar
Tardif, T. (1996). Nouns are not always learned before verbs: Evidence from Mandarin speakers' early vocabularies. Developmental Psychology 32, 492504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tardif, T. (2005). But are they really verbs? Paper presented at the meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, April, Atlanta, GA.Google Scholar
Tardif, T. (2006). But are they really verbs? Chinese words for action. In Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R. M. (eds), Action meets word: How children learn verbs, 477–98. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tardif, T., Fletcher, P., Zhang, Z. X., Liang, W. L. & Zuo, Q. H. (in press). The Chinese Communicative Development Inventory (Putonghua and Cantonese versions): Manual, forms, and norms. Beijing: Peking University Medical Press.Google Scholar
Tardif, T., Gelman, S. A. & Xu, F. (1999). Putting the ‘noun bias’ in context: A comparison of English and Mandarin. Child Development 70, 620–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tardif, T., Shatz, M. & Naigles, L. R. (1997). Caregiver speech and children's use of nouns versus verbs: A comparison of English, Italian, and Mandarin. Journal of Child Language 24, 535–65.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Theakston, A. L., Lieven, E. V. M., Pine, J. M. & Rowland, C. F. (2002). Going, going, gone: The acquisition of the verb ‘go’. Journal of Child Language 29, 783811.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tomasello, M. & Kruger, A. C. (1992). Joint attention on actions: Acquiring verbs in ostensive and non-ostensive contexts. Journal of Child Language 19, 311–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tse, S. K., Chan, C. & Li, H. (2005). Is the expressive vocabulary of young Cantonese speakers noun or verb dominated? Early Child Development and Care 175, 214–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Yin, B. Y. & Felley, M. (1990). Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and orthography. Beijing: Sinolingua.Google Scholar
Cited by

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Imageability predicts the age of acquisition of verbs in Chinese children*
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Imageability predicts the age of acquisition of verbs in Chinese children*
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Imageability predicts the age of acquisition of verbs in Chinese children*
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *