Underextension is the third predominant error commonly observed during the early periods of language extension. It is somewhat opposite to overextension. It occurs in cases of a child failing to extend the usage of the word to other objects within the same category, after acquiring the word, initially. That is, the child uses the word in an increasingly restricted or in an individualistic manner. For instance, after a child learns a word like â€œflowerâ€ in reference to a â€œrose,â€ but fails to extend its usage or meaning to other types of flowers.
Research has more commonly focused on underextension in the usage of nouns. However, this error may apply to verbs as well. For instance, a child may learn the verb â€œsitâ€ and use it only in reference to his family dogâ€™s sitting, but not in reference to anything else. In this case, the child is underextending the use of the verb â€œsit.â€
Underextension has been thought of as being less common or may be less noticeable than overgeneralization or overextension. However, as per Margaret Harris, recent research has shed light on an increasing number of reports pertaining to the occurrence of underextension. As per Harris, underextension is of 2 types:
Context Bound â€“ In this case, the child uses the word only in a specific and limited context. For instance, a child using the word â€œduckâ€ only in reference to hit the toy duck in a bathtub.
Contextually Flexible â€“ In this case, the childâ€™s underextension involves the restriction of the usage of a word to a specific referent rather than to a specific situation. For example, the use of the word â€œclockâ€ only in reference to wall clocks, or the use of the word â€œlightâ€ only in reference to ceiling lights.
This underextension is contextually flexible because children tend to use these words in a referential manner.
Causes of Under extension
Researchers have speculated that the reason why underextension develops or why prolonged underextension exists is probably due to parentsâ€™ inadvertent contribution. That is, whilst talking to their children, parents might not suggest all the instances of a category of objects, especially in cases of unusual word situations, thus causing these errors. Thomas G. White conducted a study on preschool children between the ages 3 to 5. He found that these children would not apply labels (like, food) to instances of categories that were rated as being atypical by the adults. His study also showed that mothers of children tended to use super-ordinate terms much lesser when it came to atypical instances than when compared with typical instances. This study seemed to suggest that the labels which children hear from their parents may impact underextension.
Like with overgeneralization and overextension, underextension seems to decline as children grow and their vocabulary and grasp on the rules of a language grow along with them. That is, as children grow, they tend to learn the general uses of a term and apply them appropriately in a more general manner than in a selective manner
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