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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A crosslinguistic study of the acquisition of time words in English- and German-speaking children


Unlike English, German contains single words for “the day after tomorrow” (übermorgen) and “the day before yesterday” (vorgestern). How might these cross-linguistic differences influence children’s acquisition of time words? Prior work shows that English-speaking preschoolers learn the deictic status of time words (e.g., yesterday was in the past) long before learning their precise temporal locations (e.g., yesterday was exactly one day ago). Here we ask whether the set of time words influences children’s understanding of proximal (yesterday/tomorrow) and distal (day before yesterday/day after tomorrow) terms. English- and German-speaking 3- to 7-year-olds (N = 253) marked the temporal location of each term relative to today on a calendar template. While children in both language groups demonstrated equal knowledge of deictic status, German speakers were more likely to have precise meanings for proximal and distal items, suggesting that having more alternative time words available may help narrow the scope of children’s meanings.

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