Jean Piaget, founder of genetic epistemology and key researcher in child development psychology, showed that kids attribute “life status” to all things that move on their own, like bikes or clouds, and even 10-year-olds have difficulty understanding the nature of a 'living' thing.

Understanding the concept of a living thing is a late developmental achievement, he stated.

New research by Northwestern University psychologist Florencia Anggoro and colleagues Sandra Waxman and Doug Medin proposes that the way in which “alive” and other biological concepts are named within a given language also shapes their understanding and acquisition in children.

The researchers compared children ages 4 to 9 speaking English and Indonesian, a pair of languages with an intriguing difference - in English, but not Indonesian, the term 'animal' is polysemous, or has more than one meaning: one sense includes all animate objects (the animal kingdom) while the other excludes humans (‘don’t eat like an animal!’)

This polysemy, the researchers say, can make it difficult for children to identify with any precision the scope of the names and their underlying concepts. If this is the case, then children learning a language without this polysemy should have less difficulty. Indonesian provides an ideal test: the word 'animal' is not ambiguous; it refers exclusively to non-human animals.

Anggoro and colleagues asked both Indonesian-speaking children and English-speaking children to identify entities that are “alive” in a simple sorting task. Indonesian-speaking children, tested in Jakarta, exhibited little trouble; they selected both plants and animals. English-speaking children, tested in Chicago, had trouble settling on the scope of the concept, and even at 9 years of age tended to exclude plants. Thus, the term “alive” poses unique interpretive challenges, especially for English-speaking children.

These results offer insights into how knowledge is shaped by language. The results also have strong implications for education, “understanding the conceptual consequences of language differences will serve as an effective tool in our efforts to advance the educational needs of children, including (but not limited to) those from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds who are now enrolled in U.S. schools” says Anggoro.

Funding by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Article: Florencia K. Anggoro, Sandra R. Waxman, Douglas L. Medin (2008), 'Naming Practices and the Acquisition of Key Biological Concepts: Evidence From English and Indonesian', Psychological Science 19 (4) , 314–319 doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02086.x