ABSTRACT: We explored children's early interpretation of numerals and linguistic number marking, in order to test the hypothesis (e.g., Carey (2004). Bootstrapping and the origin of concepts. Daedalus, 59-68) that children's initial distinction between one and other numerals (i.e., two, three, etc.) is bootstrapped from a prior distinction between singular and plural nouns. Previous studies have presented evidence that in languages without singular-plural morphology, like Japanese and Chinese, children acquire the meaning of the word one later than in singular-plural languages like English and Russian. In two experiments, we sought to corroborate this relation between grammatical number and integer acquisition within English. We found a significant correlation between children's comprehension of numerals and a large set of natural language quantifiers and determiners, even when controlling for effects due to age. However, we also found that 2-year-old children, who are just acquiring singular-plural morphology and the word one, fail to assign an exact interpretation to singular noun phrases (e.g., a banana), despite interpreting one as exact. For example, in a Truth-Value Judgment task, most children judged that a banana was consistent with a set of two objects, despite rejecting sets of two for the numeral one. Also, children who gave exactly one object for singular nouns did not have a better comprehension of numerals relative to children who did not give exactly one. Thus, we conclude that the correlation between quantifier comprehension and numeral comprehension in children of this age is not attributable to the singular-plural distinction facilitating the acquisition of the word one. We argue that quantifiers play a more general role in highlighting the semantic function of numerals, and that children distinguish between numerals and other quantifiers from the beginning, assigning exact interpretations only to numerals.
Cognitive Psychology 10/2008; 58(2):195-219. · 4.27 Impact Factor