Special talk, 10/23 – David Barner

Speaker: Dr. David Barner, UCSD
Place: Room 461, 2001 McGill College
Title: Linguistic origins of uniquely human abstract concepts
Abstract: Humans have a unique ability to organize experience via formal systems for measuring time, space, and number. Many such concepts – like minute, meter, or liter – rely on arbitrary divisions of phenomena using a system of exact numerical quantification, which first emerges in development in the form of number words (e.g., one, two, three, etc). Critically, large exact numerical representations like “57” are neither universal among humans nor easy to acquire in childhood, raising significant questions as to their cognitive origins, both developmentally and in human cultural history. In this talk, I explore one significant source of such representations: Natural language. In Part 1, I draw on evidence from six language groups, including French/English and Spanish/English bilinguals, to argue that children learn small number words using the same linguistic representations that support learning singular, dual, and plural representations in many of the world’s languages. For example, I will argue that children’s initial meaning for the word “one” is not unlike their meaning for “a”. In Part 2, I investigate the idea that the logic of counting – and the intuition that numbers are infinite – also arises from a foundational property of language: Recursion. In particular, I will present a series of new studies from Cantonese, Hindi, Gujarati, English, and Slovenian. Some of these languages – like Cantonese and Slovenian – exhibit relatively transparent morphological rules in their counting systems, which may allow children to readily infer that number words – and therefore numbers – can be freely generated from rules, and therefore are infinite. Other languages, like Hindi and Gujarati, have highly opaque counting systems, and may make it harder for children to infer such rules. I conclude that the fundamental logical properties that support learning mathematics can also be found in natural language. I end by speculating about why number words are so difficult for children to acquire, and also why not all humans constructed count systems historically.
Bio: Dr. Barner’s research program engages three fundamental problems that confront the cognitive sciences. The first problem is how we can explain the acquisition of concepts that do not transparently reflect properties of the physical world, whether these express time, number, or logical content found in language. What are the first assumptions that children make about such words when they hear them in language, and what kinds of evidence do they use to decode their meanings? Second, he is interested in how linguistic structure affects learning, and whether grammatical differences between languages cause differences in conceptual development. Are there concepts that are easier to learn in some languages than in others? Or do cross-linguistic differences have little effect on the rate at which concepts emerge in language development? Dr. Barner studies these case studies taking a cross-linguistic and cross-cultural developmental approach informed by methods in both psychology and linguistics, and studies children learning Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Arabic, Slovenian, Spanish, French, and English, among others.

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