How do children learn language rules?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Children learn languages easily, mostly without explicitly being taught any of their rules. This process is very different from adults, who have more difficulty learning languages even when they are explicitly taught the rules. Our goal is to better understand the process by which children learn languages.

    In this study, children (ages 1-3 years) will help a researcher teach a puppet some new words. The researcher will show the puppet a picture, name the object in the picture, and then quiz the puppet. The puppet will answer with positive or negative sentences that are either true or false in relation to the picture. Children will then be asked to tell the puppet whether its answer was right or wrong. Children under the age of four years may not have mastered negatives yet - investigating how young children understand sentences such as “This is not a cat” (and whether they interpret such statements as true or false related to the picture) helps us learn about the way logic works in a child’s brain.

    Children master some fairly complicated grammar rules even before age 3, while others take them until beyond age 6. We are interested in learning about the specific order in which grammar rules are learned, why some take longer than others, and how children manage to learn them.

    This research will help us better understand how children learn languages, and how we can best support language learning in both children and adults.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by the Language Acquisition Lab at MIT.

        » MIT Language Acquisition Lab

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Playing With Language

    Find the Reading Area in the Children’s Gallery and select one of the Dr. Seuss books to read with your child. Dr. Seuss often bends grammar rules in order to keep stories rhyming and whimsical. Can your child recognize when a sentence is strange? Can s/he tell you why or how it should be written?

    You can try this again, several months later, to see how your child’s language skills develop over time.

    Activities to Try at Home

    Playing With Logic

    Logic operators (e.g., not, or, and) are used both by humans and by computers. In humans, the rules of logic must be learned, and this happens in the early stages of language development. Children ages 1 to 3 years may have trouble with some of the rules, or interpret them differently from adults.

    Try setting up a situation with two options - for example, choosing between two things to eat or play with. If you tell your child to pick one or the other, does your child pick both? This is called the inclusive or interpretation. Most of the time, when adults use “or”, they mean exclusive or (which means “pick only one”). If an adult means “pick one or both”, the adult will usually make that clear; “or” by itself usually means “not both”. This is an assumption that adults make easily, but in order to understand exclusive or (that “this or that” means only one of the two), children must first believe that picking “this” means picking “not that.”

    Try this activity with your child a few times over several months and notice how your child’s logical, interpretive brain develops over time.

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