Children learn number words slowly because they don't identify number as relevant to linguistic meaning

AbstractChildren learn number words slowly, acquiring exact meanings for their first words in sequence, with many months in between words. The long delays are surprising in light of evidence that infants can discriminate, e.g., sets of 2 from 3. Here, we test the hypothesis that, rather than facing a perceptual problem, children have difficulty identifying number as the dimension of meaning encoded by an adjective like "three." We trained children on an unknown number word in the context of a proper noun (a giraffe named "Mr. 3" with three spots), and found that 1- and 2-knowers were later better at identifying the giraffe from a lineup, relative to children who had heard the same giraffe described with an adjective ("with three spots"). These results support the hypothesis that identifying number as a dimension of meaning, rather than visual discriminability or salience, is a bottleneck on early number word learning.

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