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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Generic Language in Parent-Child Conversations

  • Author(s): Gelman, Susan A.
  • Goetz, Peggy J
  • Sarnecka, Barbara W
  • Flukes, Jonathan
  • et al.

Generic knowledge concerns kinds of things (e.g., birds fly; a chair is for sitting; gold is a metal). Past research demonstrated that children spontaneously develop generic knowledge by preschool age. The present study examines when and how children learn to use the multiple devices provided by their language to express generic knowledge. We hypothesize that children assume, in the absence of specifying information or context, that nouns refer to generic kinds, as a default. Thus, we predict that (a) Children should talk about kinds from an early age. (b) Children should learn generic forms with only minimal parental scaffolding. (c) Children should recognize a variety of different linguistic forms as generic. Results from longitudinal samples of adult-child conversations support all three hypotheses. We also report individual differences in the use of generics, suggesting that children differ in their tendency to form the abstract generalizations so expressed.

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