Children learn quantifiers in the same order across languages

Children acquire words that denote quantity, such as 'some' and 'all', in the same order across many different languages. This was discovered in the recent study 'Cross-linguistic patterns in the acquisition of quantifiers' involving children speaking several languages.

The study involved over 50 academics from around the world. The Finnish speaking children participating in the study were studied by Professor Sari Kunnari from the University of Oulu, who was also a member of the management group of the study.

Previous research suggests that children learn number words in increasing numerical order, such as "one, two, three" and so on. The new study confirms that the same applies to other words of quantity as well, despite no-one teaching young children explicitly what these words mean or how they are used.

The findings bring a new perspective into the debate on universality of language: We have now found universals in the process of how we learn language, as contrasted to universal properties of language itself. This research also opens the door to creating language assessment tests that are applicable to every language.

The new study included 768 five-year-old children and 536 adults who spoke one of 31 languages, including Finnish, representing 11 language groups. The authors showed participants five objects and five boxes with zero to five of the objects placed inside the boxes. Participants listened to sentences containing one of the quantifiers (e.g., "All of the objects are in the boxes."), and judged whether the sentences correctly or incorrectly described the visual display.

Children across languages acquired quantifiers in a similar order based on factors related to the words' meanings and uses. For example, children more successfully understood quantifiers such as 'all' or 'none' than quantifiers such as 'some' and 'most', suggesting that children acquire words that encompass totality at an earlier stage of development than words that denote a portion of a group.

The study was published in the August 1 online Early Edition of the highly prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The majority of researchers collaborated in the European research network COST Action A33 "Cross-Linguistically Robust Stages of Children's Linguistic Performance" (2006–2010).

Reference: Katsos et al.: 'Cross-linguistic patterns in the acquisition of quantifiers', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), doi:10.1073/pnas.1601341113

Last updated: 19.8.2016