University of Nova Gorica linguists in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Grammatical number system of a language affects children’s acquisition of number words

Nov. 11, 2013

University of Nova Gorica linguists Franc Marušič and Rok Žaucer, together with colleagues from the University of California, San Diego, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University College London and King Saud University, published an article in the high-impact journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which they report the results of a study of how children’s acquisition of number words is affected by the grammar of the language they are growing up with.

Children’s counting is known to be separate from their understanding of individual numbers, as children may be able to correctly count from ‘one’ to ‘ten’ and at the same time not understand the meaning of individual numbers. The meaning of number words is acquired gradually, starting with the meaning of ‘one’, which usually appears between the ages of 2 and 3, and then proceeding with the meaning of the next higher number every few months, until children eventually figure out the system of counting by around the age of 5.

The new study tested children growing up with English and children growing up with Slovenian and Saudi Arabic, two languages whose grammars do not distinguish just between singular and plural forms, as does the grammar of English, but in addition have separate dual forms for referring to sets of two. Results show that the existence of separate dual forms facilitates Slovenian- and Saudi Arabic-speaking children’s early acquisition of number words. Specifically, children from these groups learn ‘one’ and ‘two’ faster than English-speaking children.

However, the existence of special dual forms is not the only factor that affects the speed of early acquisition of number words. Slovenian- and Saudi Arabic-speaking children were found to remain at the level of ‘two’-knowers—children who understand ‘one’ and ‘two’, but not ‘three’ and higher—longer than their English-speaking peers. The study relates this finding to cultural differences, as the English-speaking children from San Diego, CA, were also found to be considerably better in reciting the count list (saying ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’ … without necessarily understanding these words’ meanings), which led the researchers to conclude that it is precisely this ability that allows them to progress from ‘two’-knowers to ‘three’-knowers and on faster than their Slovenian- and Saudi Arabic-speaking peers.

The study was conducted in kindergartens in Slovenia, Saudi Arabia and California, where the researchers tested over 200 children between 2 and 5 years of age. The Slovenian part of the study is part a three-year project on the acquisition of the dual for which linguists from the University of Nova Gorica have been awarded funding by the Slovenian Research Agency.

Link to the article