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? And how does conversation with more expert speakers (usually adults) foster the acquisition of a first language? I am particularly interested in the general role of practice along with feedback here.

Academic Appointments

Honors & Awards

  • President, International Association for the Study of Child Language (2011-2014)
  • LabEx International Chair, Université de Paris-Diderot (2014)
  • Fellow, Linguistic Society of America (elected 2016)
  • Fellow, Cognitive Science Society (elected 2015)
  • Fellow, Association for Psychological Science (elected 2007)
  • Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science (elected 2003)
  • Foreign Member, Koniklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Weterschappen (KNAW) (elected 1991)
  • Fellow, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1983-1984)
  • Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford (1979-1980)

Program Affiliations

  • Symbolic Systems Program

Professional Education

  • PhD, Univerity of Edinburgh, Linguistics (1969)
  • Diploma, University of Edinburgh, Theoretical Linguistics (1966)
  • MA Hons, University of Edinburgh, French Language & Literature (1965)

2023-24 Courses

All Publications

  • A gradualist view of word meaning in language acquisition and language use JOURNAL OF LINGUISTICS Clark, E. 2022
  • Conversational Repair and the Acquisition of Language DISCOURSE PROCESSES Clark, E. V. 2020
  • Perspective-taking and pretend-play: Precursors to figurative language use in young children JOURNAL OF PRAGMATICS Clark, E. V. 2020; 156: 100–109
  • 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 PubMedID 30326987

  • Conversation and Language Acquisition: A Pragmatic Approach LANGUAGE LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT Clark, E. V. 2018; 14 (3): 170–85
  • Pragmatic inferences in context: learning to interpret contrastive prosody JOURNAL OF CHILD LANGUAGE Kurumada, C., Clark, E. V. 2017; 44 (4): 850–80


    Can preschoolers make pragmatic inferences based on the intonation of an utterance? Previous work has found that young children appear to ignore intonational meanings and come to understand contrastive intonation contours only after age six. We show that four-year-olds succeed in interpreting an English utterance, such as "It LOOKS like a zebra", to derive a conversational implicature, namely [but it isn't one], as long as they can access a semantically stronger alternative, in this case "It's a zebra". We propose that children arrive at the implicature by comparing such contextually provided alternatives. Contextually leveraged inferences generalize across speakers and contexts, and thus drive the acquisition of intonational meanings. Our findings show that four-year-olds and adults are able to bootstrap their interpretation of the contrast-marking intonation by taking into account alternative utterances produced in the same context.

    View details for PubMedID 27226045

  • Semantic Categories in Acquisition HANDBOOK OF CATEGORIZATION IN COGNITIVE SCIENCE, 2ND EDITION Clark, E., Cohen, H., Lefebvre, C. 2017: 397–421
  • "The moustache sits down first": on the acquisition of metonymy JOURNAL OF CHILD LANGUAGE Falkum, I. L., Recasens, M., Clark, E. V. 2017; 44 (1): 87–119


    This study investigates preschoolers' ability to understand and produce novel metonyms. We gave forty-seven children (aged 2;9-5;9) and twenty-seven adults one comprehension task and two elicitation tasks. The first elicitation task investigated their ability to use metonyms as referential shorthands, and the second their willingness to name animates metonymically on the basis of a salient property. Although children were outperformed by adults, even three-year-olds could understand and produce metonyms in certain circumstances. Our results suggest that young children may find it easier to produce a metonym than a more elaborate referential description in certain contexts, and that metonymy may serve as a useful strategy in referring to entities that lack a conventional label. However, metonymy comprehension appeared to decrease with age, with older children tending to choose literal interpretations of some metonyms. This could be a result of growing metalinguistic awareness, which leads children to overemphasize literal meanings.

    View details for PubMedID 26781847

  • Turn-taking, timing, and planning in early language acquisition JOURNAL OF CHILD LANGUAGE Casillas, M., Bobb, S. C., Clark, E. V. 2016; 43 (6): 1310–37


    Young children answer questions with longer delays than adults do, and they don't reach typical adult response times until several years later. We hypothesized that this prolonged pattern of delay in children's timing results from competing demands: to give an answer, children must understand a question while simultaneously planning and initiating their response. Even as children get older and more efficient in this process, the demands on them increase because their verbal responses become more complex. We analyzed conversational question-answer sequences between caregivers and their children from ages 1;8 to 3;5, finding that children (1) initiate simple answers more quickly than complex ones, (2) initiate simple answers quickly from an early age, and (3) initiate complex answers more quickly as they grow older. Our results suggest that children aim to respond quickly from the start, improving on earlier-acquired answer types while they begin to practice later-acquired, slower ones.

    View details for PubMedID 26603859

  • Early verb constructions in French: adjacency on the left edge JOURNAL OF CHILD LANGUAGE Veneziano, E., Clark, E. V. 2016; 43 (6): 1193–1230


    Children acquiring French elaborate their early verb constructions by adding adjacent morphemes incrementally at the left edge of core verbs. This hypothesis was tested with 2657 verb uses from four children between 1;3 and 2;7. Consistent with the Adjacency Hypothesis, children added clitic subjects first only to present tense forms (as in il saute 'he jumps'); modals to infinitives (as in faut sauter 'has to jump'); and auxiliaries to past participles (as in a sauté 'has jumped'). Only after this did the children add subjects to the left of a modal or auxiliary, as in elle veut sauter 'she wants to jump', or elle a sauté 'she has jumped'. The order in which these elements were added, and the development in the frequencies of the constructions, all support the predictions of the Adjacency Hypothesis for left edge development in early verb constructions.

    View details for PubMedID 26487551

  • Turn-taking: a case study of early gesture and word use in answering WHERE and WHICH questions FRONTIERS IN PSYCHOLOGY Clark, E. V., Lindsey, K. L. 2015; 6


    When young children answer questions, they do so more slowly than adults and appear to have difficulty finding the appropriate words. Because children leave gaps before they respond, it is possible that they could answer faster with gestures than with words. In this study, we compare gestural and verbal responses from one child between the ages of 1;4 and 3;5, to adult Where and Which questions, which can be answered with gestures and/or words. After extracting all adult Where and Which questions and child answers from longitudinal videotaped sessions, we examined the timing from the end of each question to the start of the response, and compared the timing for gestures and words. Child responses could take the form of a gesture or word(s); the latter could be words repeated from the adult question or new words retrieved by the child. Or responses could be complex: a gesture + word repeat, gesture + new word, or word repeat + new word. Gestures were the fastest overall, followed successively by word-repeats, then new-word responses. This ordering, with gestures ahead of words, suggests that the child knows what to answer but needs more time to retrieve any relevant words. In short, word retrieval and articulation appear to be bottlenecks in the timing of responses: both add to the planning required in answering a question.

    View details for DOI 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00890

    View details for Web of Science ID 000357629400001

    View details for PubMedID 26217253

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4495560

  • 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

  • Constructing verb paradigms in French: adult construals and emerging grammatical contrasts MORPHOLOGY Clark, E. V., de Marneffe, M. 2012; 22 (1): 89–120
  • Using speech and gesture to introduce new objects to young children GESTURE Clark, E. V., Estigarribia, B. 2011; 11 (1): 1-23
  • Why Brush Your Teeth Is Better Than Teeth - Children's Word Production Is Facilitated in Familiar Sentence-Frames LANGUAGE LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT Arnon, I., Clark, E. V. 2011; 7 (2): 107–29
  • Children Build on Pragmatic Information in Language Acquisition LANGUAGE AND LINGUISTICS COMPASS Clark, E. V., Amaral, P. 2010; 4 (7): 445–57
  • Gender, noun classification, and agreement: Commentary on "Gender attribution and gender agreement in 4-to 10-year-old French children" by Yves Boloh and Laure Ibernon COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT Clark, E. V. 2010; 25 (1): 26–29
  • What Shapes Children's Language? Child-Directed Speech, Conventionality, and the Process of Acquisition ROUTES TO LANGUAGE: STUDIES IN HONOR OF MELISSA BOWERMAN Clark, E. V., MuellerGathercole, V. C. 2009: 233–54
  • Acquiring language: Issues and questions FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 1-+
  • In conversation with children FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 21–50
  • Starting on language: Perception FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 51–74
  • Sounds in words: Production FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 94–121
  • Words and meanings FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 122–47
  • First combinations, first constructions FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 151–75
  • Modulating word meanings FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 176–98
  • Adding complexity within clauses FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 199–228
  • Combining clauses: More complex constructions FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 229–53
  • Constructing words FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 254–78
  • Honing conversational skills FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 281–305
  • Doing things with language FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 306–35
  • Acquisition and change FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 378–400
  • Specialization for language FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 357–77
  • Two languages at a time FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 336–53
  • Lexical meaning CAMBRIDGE HANDBOOK OF CHILD LANGUAGE Clark, E. V., Bavin, E. L. 2009: 283–99
  • Early words FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2ND EDITION Clark, E. V., Clark, E. 2009: 75–93
  • 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
  • Actions and results in the acquisition of Cantonese verbs HANDBOOK OF EAST ASIAN PSYCHOLINGUISTICS, VOL 1: CHINESE Cheung, S., Clark, E. V., Li, P., Tan, L. H., Bates, E., Tzeng, O. J. 2006: 13–22
  • 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

  • Languages and Representations LANGUAGE IN MIND: ADVANCES IN THE STUDY OF LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT Clark, E. V., Gentner, D., GoldinMeadow, S. 2003: 17–24
  • 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