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.

New words

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.

In this study, we teach children (ages 3-6 years) unfamiliar words and tell them that the words come from a “muppet language” that only Sesame Street characters like Elmo speak. For example, Elmo might say, “Here is some gluck,” referring to a sheet of glass material.

We are interested in whether children later understand or use these muppet words in ways that we haven’t taught them. For example, do children think that gluck can also refer to a glass cup, even though we only taught them that it refers to glass material? To find out, we tell children a story and then ask them to describe what happened using the new words they have learned. We also show children pictures of objects and ask them what they might be called in muppet language. We are interested in what words children choose to use, and whether they use the new words in creative ways to describe the objects that they see.

This study may help us to better understand how children learn new words and their meanings, and when children begin to use words in creative ways.

Learn about other research related to Math and Language Cognition.

This research is conducted by the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard University

Try it at the Museum

Can you "duck"? Can you "snake"?

Look at all the animal skulls, bones, furs, and shells in the Discovery Center. Which animal names have other meanings as well? Which ones don’t? Try to act them all out!

Sending messages

Try spelling some words using the Message Tube on the second floor of the Discovery Center.

What words can you create? Scramble up the letters and see if a friend or family member can “decode” your message. Can you make more than one word using the same set of letters?

Try it at Home

Creative language

Children often use words creatively to express concepts they cannot find words for. For example, a child who is having trouble getting dressed might ask his mother to "shirt" him. Using "shirt" as a verb is a creative use of a word. Do you notice children using other words creatively to express themselves?