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Vocabulary simplification for children: a special case of ‘motherese’?*

  • Donald P. Hayes (a1) and Margaret G. Ahrens (a1)
Abstract
ABSTRACT

A new corpus of spontaneous conversations between adults and children is examined for evidence that adults simplify their vocabulary choices when speaking with young children. If these simplifications are found to be age-dependent, then they would broaden the pattern of simplifications characteristic of ‘motherese’ to include lexical choice as well. For the age-range newborns to 12 years, the results are both consistent with and contrary to the attested set of grammatical simplifications. In this corpus, MLU and TTR are strongly age-dependent, but adults do not choose their words from the 10,000 most common word-types in English in an age-dependent manner. Rather, the additional types for school-aged children come from the same part of the vocabulary and share the same-shaped distributions as in adult speech with preschool children and infants. This absence of an age-dependent accommodation in word choice has implications for models of child lexical acquisition which assume adult language accommodation.

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Corresponding author
Department of Sociology, 346 Uris Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.
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*

The authors wish to thank many who have contributed to these analyses: the parents, teachers, paramedics, nurses and children who generously allowed themselves to be recorded in the course of their normal activities; Tony Wootton, Gorden Wells, Catherine Snow and Harry Levin for loaning us samples of their similarly recorded texts; and finally, B. Hayes, H. Levin, F. Hayes, L. Meltzer, W. Lambert and D. Wilson for their comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Special thanks go to the anonymous Cornell alumnus who provided the mini-computer used to produce and analyse this corpus.

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References
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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
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