Museum of Science, Boston

Math and Language Cognition

Language and math are important tools that allow humans to better understand the world around them, and communicate with one another. Some cognitive scientists are interested in learning more about how children develop language skills and conceptions about basic math principles, and how the development of math and language skills in early childhood might be interrelated.

Current Research

Can practicing help children learn the meaning of number words?

Children can recite the numbers one through ten long before they understand exactly what those words mean or how counting works. This study seeks to understand when and how children learn what number words mean, and whether practicing can help very young children learn how to count.

Completed Research

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Are children sensitive to basic geometric properties?

We know that adults are able to recognize subtle differences between shapes, like differences in the size of an angle or the length of its sides. This study asks two questions: “Do children share this ability?” and “Are some properties of shapes easier to recognize than others?”

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Do children think about probability in the same ways that adults do?

Research has shown that adults prefer the simplest explanation with the fewest causes to explanations that are more probable, but more complex. This study asked: do children use the same reasoning?

Previous Research

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What types of geometric properties do toddlers understand?

As adults, we use geometric properties (like distance, direction, and angle) to recognize objects and navigate through the world. Research suggests that children may have an intuitive understanding of some types of geometric properties, even before they learn about them in school. In this study, we are investigating whether children understand the concepts of distance, direction, and angle in 2D and 3D objects.

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How do children learn to use words with related meanings?

Many words that we use have more than one meaning. For example, “glass” can refer either to a material (as in “broken glass”) or to a product that is made of that material (as in “a glass of water”). However, scientists don’t know whether young children understand the connection between different meanings of words like “glass.” In order to learn more about this, we teach children new words, and see if they later use them in creative ways.

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How do children remember where objects are located?

Remembering where things are in space and communicating to others where to find them are important skills that we need in our everyday lives. We can remember the location of things from our own perspective (to my left), by their proximity to other objects (next to the chair), or even using compass directions (on the south side). We are interested in how children typically remember locations and directions, and whether or not some spatial relationships are easier to remember than others.

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How do children talk and reason about quantities?

Languages allow people to talk about quantities like “three apples” or “three pounds of apples.” Children usually learn their native language quickly, and most two-year-olds are capable of understanding number words such as “one, two, three.” While counting objects in a set, they understand that the last number word spoken indicates the total number of objects in the set. However, what exactly have they learned about the process of counting in determining quantities? This three-part study explores how 3-5 year-olds talk and reason about quantities.

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Can children reason about three-dimensional geometry?

This study explores children’s representation and reasoning about three-dimensional (3D) geometric features. We want to understand children’s capacity to identify 3D objects by using information such as angle, length and perspective.

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Do children and adults think of ‘randomness’ in the same way?

Adults have certain ideas about what seems random in the world. For example, many adults have had the experience of flipping a coin and trying to guess which side of the coin will end up on top—either the “heads” side (H) or the “tails” side (T). Most adults would identify the coin flip sequence of HTTHT as appearing more random than a sequence that looks more uniform, i.e.: THTHT. Although any sequence of five coin flips is equally likely, some sequences feel more random than others.

This study asks: are children’s ideas about randomness similar to adults, and how do their ideas change with age?

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Do children understand multiplication before they learn about it in school?

This research explores children’s instincts about multiplication before they learn about it in school.