Helping kids learn colour names

July 20, 2011

Melody Dye has a very interesting article in Scientific American on why it’s so difficult for kids to learn words for colours, and how it can be made easier for them:

psychologists have found that even after hours and hours of repeated training on color words, children’s performance typically fails to noticeably improve, and children as old as six continue to make major color naming errors. This is seriously bizarre when you consider all the other things that children at that age can do

Different cultures divide the colour spectrum differently – sometimes subtly so, sometimes drastically. This means that learning colour terms requires children to learn not just the words but the particular colour map that obtains in their culture. And since colours are ubiquitous and blend into one another, it naturally takes a while to sort it all out.

This process might be particularly tricky in English because

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.”

Dye explains why this matters: it has to do with how our attention works. Understanding this means we can help children learn colours more quickly by adjusting our syntax slightly in a way that will direct their attention in a particular way.

The article is well worth reading, and there are many links for the curious. [Edit: It was published about a year ago, so some of you will have already read it. Somehow I saw it only recently.]

Update: The same principle also applies to number learning.


Evolution of the language organism

June 10, 2011

Professor Simon Kirby is a computational linguist who holds the Chair of Language Evolution in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh.

Kirby and his colleagues investigate, among other things, how culture and biology interact in humans to give rise to language. He appeared on this blog before, when I included his paper “The Evolution of Language” (PDF) in an early collection of language links. Here’s a diagram from the paper:

The Language Evolution and Computation research unit, which Kirby co-founded, focuses on “understanding the origins and evolution of language and communication”. It has “pioneered the application of computational and mathematical modelling techniques to traditional issues in language acquisition, change and evolution”. Its website has an overview of this work, along with a selection of dissertations and an introduction to the intriguing “alien language” experiment.

Kirby’s public Inaugural Lecture took place in March but appeared on YouTube just recently. Titled The Language Organism: evolution, culture, and what it means to be human, it is a broad discussion with general appeal, and Kirby is a relaxed and genial speaker. (I don’t know whether the ambiguity in the phrase “the language organism” is deliberate; it’s apt in any case.) From his summary:

Our species can do something utterly unique in the natural world – a behaviour so transformative that it has reshaped the mechanisms of our own evolution. . . . Virtually all species communicate, but only humans have this trick called Language.

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