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.


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.

First, in a “set judgment” task, the child is introduced to two characters that each have a set of objects, and is asked, “Who has more?” For example, one set might consist of a single object broken into pieces, while the other might consist of whole objects. In the second task, a “quantity tracking” task, the child observes cups of sand being taken in and out of a box. The child is asked to decide, after all of the trials, whether the box is empty or partially full. In the last task, a “measure words” task, the child helps the researcher select images to be put into a picture book: the child is asked to select images of either whole objects, pieces of objects, or boxes of objects.

This study will help us begin to understand the relationship between language acquisition and the formation of counting principles.

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

Sorting Message Tube Letters!

Check out the Message Tube letters on the second floor of the Discovery Center. The letters come in many different colors. Ask your child to sort the letters into different piles according to their color. Can they determine which pile has the most letters?

Next, ask your child to sort the letters into two piles based on if they are part of the first half of the alphabet (A-L) or if they are part of the second half the alphabet (M-Z). Again, ask them which pile has more letters. Do they understand the process of counting numbers? Do they determine which pile has more letters in it based on counting numbers, or just looking at the size of the two piles?

Try it at Home

Choosing between cookies!

Present your child with both a whole cookie and a cookie that is broken into two pieces. Do they prefer the two pieces of broken cookie or one whole cookie of an equal size? Then, present your child one whole cookie and three pieces from a smaller cookie, such that the three pieces of cookie combined are smaller than the whole cookie. Would your child rather have a greater number of pieces or a larger ‘total value’ of cookies?