Exploring Language Learning and Cognitive Development

There was a time in the “dark ages” of understanding cognitive development when researchers thought everyone was born with the same innate concepts as English-speaking adults. They believed that language was independent of other cognitive abilities. Fast-forward about 30 years and we now know that language development is not independent of other cognitive activities and that concepts about things in the world develop and vary across speakers of different languages.

Language Affects Cognition

Language is a tool. It helps to make thinking more efficient and is important for other cognitive activities. For example, language sets up categorical distinctions. When learning a language, linguistic categories (such as the words of a language) are learned. These categories may reflect how members of a group who speak the same language organize their experiences, and these categories may differ from one linguistic community to another. In this way, language categories structure our concepts and views about the world. Classifiers are words used in languages such as Mandarin Chinese when counting and referring to objects.

Research on Categories and Classifiers

I recently finished two big studies that focus on the relation between knowledge of classifiers and categorization across different languages.

  1. In the first, my colleagues and I looked at how adults classify items. We showed English, Japanese, Hmong and Mandarin Chinese speakers drawings of inanimate objects or living things and asked how similar the drawings were to each other. English and Japanese speakers were similar in how they divided up the drawings. The first major division they made was between living things versus non-living things. So they put things like people, flowers, trees, fish and birds into one group, and cars, planes, chairs, keys and pants into another group. However, Mandarin Chinese and Hmong speakers categorized the drawings into civilization versus nature, placing people into the same group as cars and chairs, while plants and animals were put into a different group. This study’s findings suggest major differences in how speakers of these languages perceive the world. Specifically, the results suggest differences in how people categorize living things.
  2. The second study involved the use of shape to classify objects. Our past work has shown that adult Mandarin speakers rely on shape more heavily than English speakers when categorizing solid objects. For example, if an English speaker and Mandarin speaker were shown a picture of a snake and asked, “Which is more similar to the snake, a frog or a belt?” more English speaking adults would say the frog is more similar to the snake. Mandarin speakers would often choose the belt, as they more commonly use shape as a basis for categorization. English speakers, on the other hand, use features that are shared by living things to categorize the objects.

    With this background knowledge, our shape-based categorization study involved following native speakers of Mandarin and English from 3 years of age to adulthood. We found that reliance on shape for categorization starts around 3 years of age for both Mandarin and English speakers. However, the use of shape-based categorization among English speakers tended to decrease with age while Mandarin speakers continued to classify objects based on shape into adulthood. The findings highlight how categorization, classification and word learning are intertwined.

Categorization work is especially relevant to science classroom practices because it reveals differences in the ways students learn and understand things in the world and, therefore, what information teachers might need to get across. It’s important for teachers not to assume that all students have the same underlying concepts about the world, but instead, to realize that students may conceptualize things differently. For example, in teaching science, instructors might have to explicitly explain preliminary concepts to younger students (i.e., that snakes are similar to frogs because they both have hearts, both breathe, both reproduce, etc.).

In future work, we will be continuing to understand the relations between developing language and cognition. For more information about current research projects, visit the Language and Cognitive Development Laboratory within CEHD’s Institute of Child Development.

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Maria Sera

About the Author

Maria Sera, Ph.D.

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