I am interested in first language acquisition, the acquisition of meaning, acquisitional principles in word-formation compared across children and languages, and general semantic and pragmatic issues in the lexicon and in language use. I am currently working on the kinds of pragmatic information adults offer small children as they talk to them, and on children's ability to make use of this information as they make inferences about unfamiliar meanings and about the relations between familiar and unfamiliar words. I am interested in the inferences children make about where to 'place' unfamiliar words, how they identify the relevant semantic domains, and what they can learn about conventional ways to say things based on adult responses to child errors during acquisition. All of these 'activities' involve children and adults placing information in common ground as they interact. Another current interest of mine is the construction of verb paradigms: how do children go from using a single verb form to using forms that contrast in meaning -- on such dimensions as person, number, and tense? How do they learn to distinguish the meanings of homophones? To what extent do they make use of adult input to discern the underlying structure of the system?

Academic Appointments

2018-19 Courses

All Publications

  • Exposure and feedback in language acquisition: adult construals of children's early verb-form use in Hebrew. Journal of child language Lustigman, L., Clark, E. V. 2018: 1–24


    This study focuses on adult responses to children's verb uses, the information they provide, and how they change over time. We analyzed longitudinal samples from four children acquiring Hebrew (age-range: 1;4-2;5; child verb-forms = 8,337). All child verbs were coded for inflectional category, and for whether and how adults responded to them. Our findings show that: (a) children's early verbs were opaque with no clear inflectional target (e.g., the child-form tapes corresponds to letapes 'to-climb', metapes 'is-climbing', yetapes 'will-climb'), with inflections added gradually; (b) most early verbs were followed by adult responses using the same lexeme; and (c) as opacity in children's verbs decreased, adults made fewer uses of the same lexeme in their responses, and produced a broader array of inflections and inflectional shifts. In short, adults are attuned to what their children know and respond to their early productions accordingly, with extensive 'tailor-made' feedback on their verb uses.

    View details for DOI 10.1017/S0305000918000405

    View details for PubMedID 30326987

  • Conversation and Language Acquisition: A Pragmatic Approach LANGUAGE LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT Clark, E. V. 2018; 14 (3): 170–85
  • Pragmatics in acquisition JOURNAL OF CHILD LANGUAGE Clark, E. V. 2014; 41: 105-116


    Recent research has highlighted several areas where pragmatics plays a central role in the process of acquiring a first language. In talking with their children, adults display their uses of language in each context, and offer extensive feedback on form, meaning, and usage, within their conversational exchanges. These interactions depend critically on joint attention, physical co-presence, and conversational co-presence - essential factors that help children assign meanings, establish reference, and add to common ground. For young children, getting their meaning across also depends on realizing language is conventional, that words contrast in meaning, and that they need to observe Grice's cooperative principle in conversation. Adults make use of the same pragmatic principles as they solicit repairs to what children say, and thereby offer feedback on both what the language is and how to use it.

    View details for DOI 10.1017/S0305000914000117

    View details for Web of Science ID 000339546100011

    View details for PubMedID 25023500

  • Using speech and gesture to introduce new objects to young children GESTURE Clark, E. V., Estigarribia, B. 2011; 11 (1): 1-23
  • One vs. more than one: antecedents to plural marking in early language acquisition LINGUISTICS Clark, E. V., Nikitina, T. V. 2009; 47 (1): 103-139
  • Repetition as ratification: How parents and children place information in common ground JOURNAL OF CHILD LANGUAGE Clark, E. V., Bernicot, J. 2008; 35 (2): 349-371


    Repetition is used for a range of functions in conversation. In this study, we examined all the repetitions used in spontaneous conversations by 41 French adult-child dyads, with children aged 2 ; 3 and 3 ; 6, to test the hypotheses that adults repeat to establish that they have understood, and that children repeat to ratify what adults have said. Analysis of 978 exchanges containing repetitions showed that adults use them to check on intentions and to correct errors, while children use them to ratify what the adult said. With younger children, adults combine their repeats with new information. Children then re-repeat the form originally targeted by the adult. With older children, adults check on intentions but less frequently, and only occasionally check on forms. Older children also re-repeat in the third turn but, like adults, add further information. For both adults and children, repeats signal attention to the other's utterances, and place the information repeated in common ground.

    View details for DOI 10.1017/S0305000907008537

    View details for Web of Science ID 000256246900005

    View details for PubMedID 18416863

  • Getting and maintaining attention in talk to young children JOURNAL OF CHILD LANGUAGE Estigarribia, B., Clark, E. V. 2007; 34 (4): 799-814


    When two people talk about an object, they depend on joint attention, a prerequisite for setting up common ground in a conversational exchange. In this study, we analyze this process for parent and child, with data from 40 dyads, to show how adults initiate joint attention in talking to young children (mean ages 1;6 and 3;0). Adults first get their children's attention with a summons (e.g. Ready?, See this?), but cease using such forms once children give evidence of attending. Children signal their attention by looking at the target object, evidence used by the adults. Only at that point do adults begin to talk about the object. From then on, they use language and gesture to offer information about and maintain attention on the target. The techniques adults rely on are interactive: they establish joint attention and maintain it throughout the exchange.

    View details for DOI 10.1017/S0305000907008161

    View details for Web of Science ID 000251331800004

    View details for PubMedID 18062359

  • Young children's uptake of new words in conversation LANGUAGE IN SOCIETY Clark, E. V. 2007; 36 (2): 157-182
  • Conventionality and contrast in language and language acquisition. New directions for child and adolescent development Clark, E. V. 2007: 11-23

    View details for PubMedID 17441544

  • Color, reference, and expertise in language acquisition JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL CHILD PSYCHOLOGY Clark, E. V. 2006; 94 (4): 339-343


    In learning the meaning of a new term, children need to fix its reference, learn its conventional meaning, and discover the meanings with which it contrasts. To do this, children must attend to adult speakers--the experts--and to their patterns of use. In the domain of color, children need to identify color terms as such, fix the reference of each one, and learn how each is used in the language. But color is a property, and terms for properties appear to be more difficult to grasp than do those for objects, actions, and relations. Although children find some domains easier to learn than others, they depend in each case on the expertise of adult speakers.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.jecp.2006.03.002

    View details for Web of Science ID 000239685400006

    View details for PubMedID 16600283

  • Repetition and the acquisition of the language LINGUISTIQUE Clark, E. V. 2006; 42 (2): 67-79
  • How language acquisition builds on cognitive development TRENDS IN COGNITIVE SCIENCES Clark, E. V. 2004; 8 (10): 472-478


    When children acquire a first language, they build on what they know--conceptual information that discriminates and helps create categories for the objects, relations and events they experience. This provides the starting point for language from the age of 12 months on. So children first set up conceptual representations, then add linguistic representations for talking about experience. Do they then discard earlier conceptual representations in favour of linguistic ones, or do they retain them? Recent research on the coping strategies that young children (and adults) rely on when they are unable to draw on language suggest that they retain both types of representations for use as needed.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.tics.2004.08.012

    View details for Web of Science ID 000224714800013

    View details for PubMedID 15450512

  • Adult reformulations of child errors as negative evidence JOURNAL OF CHILD LANGUAGE Chouinard, M. M., Clark, E. V. 2003; 30 (3): 637-669


    Parents frequently check up on what their children mean. They often do this by reformulating with a side sequence or an embedded correction what they think their children said. These reformulations effectively provide children with the conventional form for that meaning. Since the child's utterance and the adult reformulation differ while the intended meanings are the same, children infer that adults are offering a correction. In this way, reformulations identify the locus of any error, and hence the error itself. Analyses of longitudinal data from five children between 2;0 and 4;0 (three acquiring English and two acquiring French) show that (a) adults reformulate their children's erroneous utterances and do so significantly more often than they replay or repeat error-free utterances; (b) their rates of reformulation are similar across error-types (phonological, morphological, lexical, and syntactic) in both languages; (c) they reformulate significantly more often to younger children, who make more errors. Evidence that children attend to reformulations comes from four measures: (a) their explicit repeats of corrected elements in their next turn; (b) their acknowledgements (yeah or uh-huh) as a preface to their next turn; (c) repeats of any new information included in the reformulation; and (d) their explicit rejections of reformulations where the adult has misunderstood. Adult reformulations, then, offer children an important source of information about how to correct errors in the course of acquisition.

    View details for DOI 10.1017/S0305000903005701

    View details for Web of Science ID 000185526800006

    View details for PubMedID 14513471

  • Pragmatic directions and children's word learning JOURNAL OF CHILD LANGUAGE Clark, E. V., Grossman, J. B. 1998; 25 (1): 1-18


    The present study tested the hypothesis that children as young as two use what adults tell them about meaning relations when they make inferences about new words. 18 two-year-olds (mean age 2;2) and 18 three-year-olds (mean age 3;2) learned two new terms (a) with instructions either (i) to treat one term as a superordinate to the other, or (ii) to replace one term with another; and (b) with no instruction given about how two new words might be related. Children were attentive to both kinds of instructions or pragmatic directions, and made use of them in their word-learning. When they received no instruction relating the two new words, they resorted to a range of coping strategies to assign and relate meanings to each other. These findings support the view that children's learning of new word meanings is guided by the pragmatic directions adults offer.

    View details for Web of Science ID 000073643200001

    View details for PubMedID 9604566

  • Conceptual perspective and lexical choice in acquisition COGNITION Clark, E. V. 1997; 64 (1): 1-37


    Adult speakers choose among perspectives when they talk, with different words picking out different perspectives (e.g., the dog, our pet, that animal). The many-perspectives account of lexical acquisition proposes that children learn to take alternative perspectives along with the words they acquire, and, therefore, from the first, readily apply multiple terms to the same objects or events. And adults offer children pragmatic directions about the meanings of new words and hence about new perspectives. In contrast, the one-perspective account proposes that children are able, at first, to use only one term to talk about an object or event. Evidence for the many-perspectives account comes from a range of sources: children spontaneously use more than one term for the same object (horse and chair for a toy horse); they construct novel words to mark alternate perspectives (Dalmation-dog vs. dog); they shift perspective when asked (from cat to animal, or sailor to bear for anthropomorphic characters); and they readily learn new terms for talking about already-labelled kinds. Children sometimes fail to learn new words or fail to relate them to words already known, but only in situations that lack adequate pragmatic directions.

    View details for Web of Science ID A1997XX34500001

    View details for PubMedID 9342930

  • Reference states and reversals: Undoing actions with verbs JOURNAL OF CHILD LANGUAGE Clark, E. V., CARPENTER, K. L., Deutsch, W. 1995; 22 (3): 633-662


    The purpose of these studies is to characterize children's conception of reversal and its relation to a reference state. A reversal is the move from one state to some prior state of affairs. For example, shoes that have been TIED can be UNTIED, parcels WRAPPED then UNWRAPPED, and dishes COVERED then UNCOVERED. The present studies were designed to find out how children (aged 1;0 to 5;0) describe reversals of action that restore objects to a prior, less constrained, state. In English, the prefix un- offers the most productive device for this, but, initially, children rely on a verb like open, on general purpose undo, and on particles like out and off. As they acquire un-, English-speaking children must learn that this prefix applies primarily to verbs for change-of-state, often for enclosing, covering and attaching. In German, there is no reversal prefix, but there are productive particles. German-speaking children also begin with a verb like open and then turn to verb particles on a course similar to that in English to express reversals.

    View details for Web of Science ID A1995TY16500007

    View details for PubMedID 8789517



    In this paper, I review properties and consequences of the PRINCIPLE OF CONTRAST. This principle, which I have argued from the beginning has a pragmatic basis, captures facts about the inferences speakers and addresses make for both conventional and novel words. Along with a PRINCIPLE OF CONVENTIONALITY, it accounts for the pre-emption of novel words by well-established ones. And it holds just as much for morphology as it does for words and larger expressions. In short, Contrast has the major properties Gathercole (1989) proposed as characteristic of her alternative to Contrast.

    View details for Web of Science ID A1990DL58900010

    View details for PubMedID 2199470

  • WHEN NOUNS SURFACE AS VERBS LANGUAGE Clark, E. V., Clark, H. H. 1979; 55 (4): 767-811