Young Children's Concept of Color and Its Relation to the Acquisition of Color Words


  • Portions of this material were presented at the Stanford Child Language Research Forum, Stanford, CA, in 1986 and the meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development in New Orleans in 1993. Some of this research was supported by a Junior Year Sabbatical from Northeastern University. The author greatly appreciates the comments of Bill Merriman, Susan Carey, and two anonymous reviewers on an earlier draft of this paper, the help of Pam Herrick and LisaDawn Ouderkirk in collecting stimuli, and the assistance of Janice Hardeman, Jay Leahy, and Jim Melton in testing children. Also appreciated are the directors, teachers, and families of Hamilton Children's Center, A Small World Child Care Center, Bright Horizons at the Prudential Center, Bright Horizons at the New England Medical Center, Bright Horizons on Cambridge Street, Boston YWCA Child Care, Mulberry Child Care Center on Atlantic Avenue, and Infants and Other People as well as the families of children tested in homes.

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Many children experience great difficulty in learning their first color word. In contrast, once children have learned 1 color word, they learn additional color words more easily. This striking fact raises the question of whether children who do not know color words have conceptual color categories capable of supporting inferences about word meaning. In 3 experiments 2-year-olds were provided with tasks that required them to base inferences on color or to map things onto color. Half the children comprehended at least 1 color word, and the remaining children comprehended none. In all experiments, the children in both groups succeeded on the color tasks. It was argued that children who do not know color words have the conceptual foundation necessary to base inferences on color but have specific constraints against basing inferences about word meaning on color.