Understanding antonymy (the opposite meaning relationship between certain words) is an important conceptual development that likely supports, and is itself supported by, the acquisition of other skills. The purpose of the present research was three-fold: to determine the development of understanding for the concept of antonymy with a novel, less verbal task than used in previous research; to determine whether there are other cognitive developments related to the development of the concept of antonymy; and to evaluate whether there was evidence of a sensitivity to, or an implicit understanding of, the concept of antonymy prior to behavioural evidence of understanding.
Results showed that children’s accuracy on the opposite appreciation task improved with age. Furthermore, 4- and 5-year-old children performed significantly above chance, whereas 3-year-old children did not. Children’s performance was correlated with the context subscale of the CCC-2; children who performed better on the Opposite task also tended to be perceived as making use of context to understand language. Children whose parents reported having books or games that are focused on opposites were more likely to perform above chance than were those who did not have access to these materials in the home. Children’s performance on the opposite task was not correlated with receptive vocabulary or working memory. Eye gaze, response latency and item differences on the opposite task did not provide evidence for latent understanding of the concept of antonymy. Overall, children were significantly more accurate for the word pair big – small than the word pair awake – asleep. However, 3-year-old children did not perform above chance on the word pair for which they displayed the best performance. Eye gaze analyses did not provide any evidence for latent understanding of the concept of opposites in 3-year-old children.
These results suggest that 4- and 5-year-old children, but not 3-year-old children, show an appreciation for the antonymy relationship, and that this appreciation generalizes to a number of different antonym pairs. Furthermore, children demonstrate this appreciation only when the label “opposite” is used in the task, suggesting that antonymy is not a relationship made salient by stimulus properties alone.