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On the relation between grammatical number and cardinal numbers in development

Abstract

This mini-review focuses on the question of how the grammatical number system of a child's language may help the child learn the meanings of cardinal number words (e.g., 'one' and 'two'). Evidence from young children learning English, Russian, Japanese, Mandarin, Slovenian or Saudi Arabic suggests that trajectories of number-word learning differ for children learning different languages. Children learning English, which distinguishes between singular and plural, seem to learn the meaning of the cardinal number 'one' earlier than children learning Japanese or Mandarin, which have very little singular/plural marking. Similarly, children whose languages have a singular/dual/plural system (Slovenian and Saudi Arabic) learn the meaning of 'two' earlier than English-speaking children. This relation between grammatical and cardinal number may shed light on how humans acquire cardinal-number concepts. There is an ongoing debate about whether mental symbols for small cardinalities (concepts for 'oneness,' 'twoness,' etc.) are innate or learned. Although an effect of grammatical number on number-word learning does not rule out nativist accounts, it seems more consistent with constructivist accounts, which portray the number-learning process as one that requires significant conceptual change.

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