Classifiers are like nouns in that they classify entities in the world into lexical categories. However, the lexical nature of the classifier system is very different from that of nouns. We discuss how Japanese and Chinese children learn the meanings of classifiers. We focus on two specific questions: How classifier acquisition is different from noun acquisition; and what the prerequisites are for spontaneously extracting the meanings of classifiers. It is shown that children are very conservative in assigning meaning to classifiers. The pace of learning largely depends on semantic complexity, across languages and within each language. Furthermore, we suspect that learning the meanings of classifiers requires a certain cognitive ability - an ability to synthesize pieces of partial knowledge and form them into a cohesive whole. It may be only when children have developed such an ability that they are able to extract the complex semantic rules of classifiers on their own. We conclude that children take very different routes in learning nouns and classifiers: Unlike noun acquisition, classifier acquisition is guided by a slow, bottom-up process.
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