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Nature22 July 2004

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Koreans have a word for it

An experiment using cylindrical containers of various sizes is an incongruous starting point for a journey into the mysteries of cognitive development involved when humans learn the concepts behind individual terms of a language. But starting point it is. In the experiment, 5-month-old infants divided a series of actions into two categories, corresponding to 'tight' and 'loose' fits — a conceptual distinction that is marked in the Korean language, but not in English. Infants from a Korean-speaking environment detected this distinction, like adult Korean speakers. However, infants from an English-speaking environment also made the distinction, yet adult English speakers generally do not. Without linguistic support, an innate capability to make this distinction seems to vanish. So language learning seems to link linguistic forms to pre-existing representations of sound and meaning.

letters to nature
Conceptual precursors to language
Nature 430, 453–456 (2004); doi:10.1038/nature02634
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news and views
Language: Children think before they speak
A linguistic contrast between English and Korean provides a telling test of different ideas about whether thought precedes the acquisition of language, or whether certain concepts are language-specific.
Nature 430, 410–411 (2004); doi:10.1038/430410a
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22 July 2004 table of contents

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