Sound symbolism facilitates early verb learning

Mutsumi Imai, Sotaro Kita, Miho Nagumo, Hiroyuki Okada

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

284 Citations (Scopus)


Some words are sound-symbolic in that they involve a non-arbitrary relationship between sound and meaning. Here, we report that 25-month-old children are sensitive to cross-linguistically valid sound-symbolic matches in the domain of action and that this sound symbolism facilitates verb learning in young children. We constructed a set of novel sound-symbolic verbs whose sounds were judged to match certain actions better than others, as confirmed by adult Japanese- as well as English speakers, and by 2- and 3-year-old Japanese-speaking children. These sound-symbolic verbs, together with other novel non-sound-symbolic verbs, were used in a verb learning task with 3-year-old Japanese children. In line with the previous literature, 3-year-olds could not generalize the meaning of novel non-sound-symbolic verbs on the basis of the sameness of action. However, 3-year-olds could correctly generalize the meaning of novel sound-symbolic verbs. These results suggest that iconic scaffolding by means of sound symbolism plays an important role in early verb learning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)54-65
Number of pages12
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2008 Oct


  • Iconicity in language
  • Scaffolding for early verb learning
  • Sound symbolism
  • Verb learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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