The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LingLunch 9/4 - Roman Feiman

Speaker: Roman Feiman (Snedeker & Carey Labs at Harvard Psychology)
Title: The acquisition of verbal negation: a case study in the development of logical operators in thought and language
Date/Time: Thursday, September 4, 12:30-1:45
Location: 34-D461

Logical connectives in natural language, such as “and,” “or,” and “not,” have highly abstract meanings that are typically modeled as higher-order functions of the meanings of the phrases with which they combine. Despite this complexity, children begin to use such words very early. How do they learn the meanings of words with such abstract, non-referential content? Does learning the corresponding words somehow help learn the concept? Or must one know the concept already, so that learning the word is a matter of labeling an existing mental symbol?

I will describe a series of experiments examining children’s comprehension of the words “no” and “not.” Our main finding is that children do not begin to understand the abstract meaning of these words until the age of two. This is surprisingly late, given that “no”, in particular, is frequently produced by younger children. I will discuss some possible interpretations for this disconnect between children’s production of the word and understanding of its logical force, as well as the significance of these findings for the relationship between the development of logic and language.