Beyond early linguistic competence: Development of children's ability to interpret adjectives flexibly

Helena Hong Gao, Philip David Zelazo, Dean Sharpe, Azad Mashari

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


We investigated the circumstances in which 3- to 5-year-old children can and cannot interpret adjectives flexibly. In Experiment 1, children were required to interpret big and little both in reference to a basic level kind (e.g., "This is a big marble") and in reference to a superordinate kind (e.g., "This is a little toy"). Experiment 2 examined 3-year-olds' flexible interpretation of big and little with respect to a medium-sized stimulus that was alternately compared with a smaller stimulus and a larger stimulus (e.g., "Which one of these two circles is the big one?"). Even the youngest children switched between interpretations when the switch was accompanied by a change in the stimulus display. When the stimulus display remained constant, however, younger children typically perseverated on a single interpretation. Results replicate evidence of the roots of flexible adjective interpretation but also show protracted development of the ability to coordinate two incompatible interpretations of a single situation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)86-102
Number of pages17
JournalCognitive Development
StatePublished - Oct 1 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We acknowledge the support by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council ( NSERC ) of Canada, the Canada Research Chairs Program, and Academic Research Fund ( AcRF ) of Ministry of Education, Singapore. We thank Mr. Gentatsu Tan Xiong Lim, Mr. Haoshu Wang, and Ms Li Ling Lee for help with checking our data analysis.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 Elsevier Inc.


  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Interference
  • Linguistic flexibility
  • Metalinguistic understanding


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