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Why Johnny Can’t Name His Colors

Stanford University has an ongoing study of how children learn language. Part of that study is how they learn color names. They found it to be difficult for a lot of children -in fact, their parents worried that they might be colorblind!

As it happens, English color words may be especially difficult to learn, because in English we throw in a curve ball: we like to use color words “prenominally,” meaning before nouns. So, we’ll often say things like “the red balloon,” instead of using the postnominal construction, “the balloon is red.”

Why does this matter? It has to do with how attention works. In conversation, people have to track what’s being talked about, and they often do this visually. This is particularly so if they’re trying to make sense of whatever it is someone is going on about. Indeed, should I start blathering about “the old mumpsimus in the corner” you’re apt to begin discretely looking around for the mystery person or object.

Kids do the exact same thing, only more avidly, because they have much, much more to learn about. That means that when you stick the noun before the color word, you can successfully narrow their focus to whatever it is you’re talking about before you hit them with the color. Say “the balloon is red,” for example, and you will have helped to narrow “red-ness” to being an attribute of the balloon, and not some general property of the world at large. This helps kids discern what about the balloon makes it red.

When the researchers switched the color and noun, they found a significant improvement in performance over the children’s baseline performances, compared to the children who received prenominal training. Link -via TYWKIWBI

(Image credit: Flickr user wine me up)

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January 10th, 2011

Stranger to the World


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