The 'blowfish effect': Children learn new words like adults do

Lauren L. Emberson, Nicole Loncar, Carolyn Mazzei, Isaac TREVES, Adele E. Goldberg. The blowfish effect: children and adults use atypical exemplars to infer more narrow categories during word learning. Journal of Child Language, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S0305000919000266

Even 3- to 5-year-olds know what typical dogs and fish look like — and they apply that knowledge when they hear new words. Researchers found that when children encounter new nouns, they use what they know about these objects to help them figure out what these words mean, a type of sophisticated reasoning thought to develop much later. The researchers coined this tactic the "blowfish effect." If children see a blowfish (or a greyhound or an unusual tropical flower) and learn a new word to go with it, they will assume it refers to that specific type of object and not the broader category of fish (or dogs or flowers). These findings run counter to the idea that children will always assume that new words should be interpreted as general terms.

"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables