To children (but not adults) a rose by any other name is still a rose

December 27, 2011

Two vital parts of mentally organizing the world are classification, or the understanding that similar things belong in the same category; and induction, an educated guess about a thing's properties if it's in a certain category. There are reasons to believe that language greatly assists adults in both kinds of tasks. But how do young children use language to make sense of the things around them? It's a longstanding debate among psychologists.

A new study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, challenges the predominant answer. "For the last 30 to 40 years it has been believed that even for very young children, labels are category markets, as they are for adults," explains psychologist Vladimir M. Sloutsky, who authored the paper with Ohio State University colleague Wei Deng. According to this theory, if you show anyone an oblong, scaled, limbless swimming thing and say it's a dog (its label), both adults and children will believe it's a dog (in that category of four-legged domesticated mammals) and should behave like a dog--bark or wag its tail.

The study confirms that many adults do use labels this way. But children do not. "Our research suggests that very early in development labels are no different from other features," says Sloutsky. "And the more salient features may completely overrule the label." You insist the swimming thing is a dog. The child weighs all the evidence--and "dog" is no more important than scales or swimming--and concludes it's a fish.

To test their hypothesis, the psychologists showed pictures of two imaginary creatures to preschoolers and college undergraduates. Both animals had a body, hands, feet, antennae, and a head. The "flurp" was distinguished by a pink head that moved up and down; the "jalet" had a blue sideways-moving head. The heads were salient--the only moving part. During training, the subjects learned what a flurp or a jalet looked like.

Then the experimenters changed some of the features, keeping the head consistent with most of them, and asked participants to supply the missing label. They also showed creatures with characteristics and a name, and the subjects had to predict--induce--the missing part. Both adults and children did best when the head was consistent with the name.

The difference arose when the head was a jalet's but label was "flurp," or vice-versa. Then, most of the adults went with the label (we accept that a dolphin is a mammal, even though it looks and swims like a fish). The children relied on the head for identification. Regardless of its name, a thing with a jalet's head is a jalet.

To eliminate the possibility that the participants were flummoxed by the invented names, they researchers called the creatures "carrot-eater" and "meat-eater." The results were the same.

Sloutsky says the findings could inform teaching and communicating with children. "If saying something is a dog does not communicate what it is any more than saying it is brown, then labeling it is necessary but by no means sufficient for a child to understand." Talking with young children, "we need to do more than just label things."
-end-
For more information about this study, please contact: Vladimir M. Sloutsky at Sloutsky.1@osu.edu.

The APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. For a copy of the article "Carrot-Eaters and Moving Heads: Salient Features Provide Greater Support for Inductive Inference than Category Labels" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Lucy Hyde at 202-293-9300 or lhyde@psychologicalscience.org.

Association for Psychological Science

Related Language Articles from Brightsurf:

Learning the language of sugars
We're told not to eat too much sugar, but in reality, all of our cells are covered in sugar molecules called glycans.

How effective are language learning apps?
Researchers from Michigan State University recently conducted a study focusing on Babbel, a popular subscription-based language learning app and e-learning platform, to see if it really worked at teaching a new language.

Chinese to rise as a global language
With the continuing rise of China as a global economic and trading power, there is no barrier to prevent Chinese from becoming a global language like English, according to Flinders University academic Dr Jeffrey Gil.

'She' goes missing from presidential language
MIT researchers have found that although a significant percentage of the American public believed the winner of the November 2016 presidential election would be a woman, people rarely used the pronoun 'she' when referring to the next president before the election.

How does language emerge?
How did the almost 6000 languages of the world come into being?

New research quantifies how much speakers' first language affects learning a new language
Linguistic research suggests that accents are strongly shaped by the speaker's first language they learned growing up.

Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.

Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.

Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.

Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.

Read More: Language News and Language Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.