Easy As One, Two, Three? Kids Learn Quantifiers In Order, Despite Language

No matter what language they speak, children learn words of quantity such as ‘all’, ‘some’ or ‘none’ in the same order.

AsianScientist (Oct. 20, 2016) – Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has found that when learning any one of 31 languages, children master words of quantity, such as ‘all’, ‘some’, ‘most’, or ‘none,’ in the same order.

We can all imagine how children learn to count: They start with ‘one’ and proceed in order of increasing cardinality (“one, two, three…”). But what about other words of quantity? No one teaches young children explicitly what these words mean or how they are used. While much research has been conducted on the acquisition of number words, relatively little is known about the acquisition of other expressions of quantity.

Assistant Professor Peter Crosthwaite from the Center for Applied English Studies at the University of Hong Kong joined over 50 colleagues from around the world in the study. Crosthwaite was responsible for testing Koreans in the experimental phase, alongside other scholars also contributing to Cantonese and Mandarin data collection.

The study attempted to determine how children acquire other kinds of quantifier words, such as ‘some’, ‘all’, ‘most’, ‘none’, and ‘some are not’, for which there is no natural order. The study included 768 five-year-old children and 536 adults who spoke one of 31 languages representing 11 language groups.

Participants listened to sentences containing one of the quantifiers—for example, “All of the objects are in the boxes.” They then judged whether the sentences correctly or incorrectly described a visual display, consisting of five objects and five boxes with zero to five of the objects placed inside the boxes.

Children across languages acquired quantifiers in a similar order based on factors related to the words’ meanings and uses. For example, children more successfully understood quantifiers such as ‘all’ or ‘none’ than quantifiers such as ‘some’ and ‘most’, suggesting that children acquire words that encompass totality at an earlier stage of development than words that denote a portion of a group.

The study findings bring a new perspective into the debate on the universality of language and point to universals in the process of how we learn language, as contrasted to universal properties of language itself.

The article can be found at: Katsos et al. (2016) Cross-linguistic Patterns in the Acquisition of Quantifiers.


Source: University of Hong Kong; Photo: Pixabay.
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