The development of language and abstract concepts: the case of natural number

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2008 Feb;137(1):22-38. doi: 10.1037/0096-3445.137.1.22.


What are the origins of abstract concepts such as "seven," and what role does language play in their development? These experiments probed the natural number words and concepts of 3-year-old children who can recite number words to ten but who can comprehend only one or two. Children correctly judged that a set labeled eight retains this label if it is unchanged, that it is not also four, and that eight is more than two. In contrast, children failed to judge that a set of 8 objects is better labeled by eight than by four, that eight is more than four, that eight continues to apply to a set whose members are rearranged, or that eight ceases to apply if the set is increased by 1, doubled, or halved. The latter errors contrast with children's correct application of words for the smallest numbers. These findings suggest that children interpret number words by relating them to 2 distinct preverbal systems that capture only limited numerical information. Children construct the system of abstract, natural number concepts from these foundations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition
  • Concept Formation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language Development*
  • Male
  • Mathematics*
  • Thinking