Natural language, unlike other animal communication systems, provides a rich combinatorial system that encodes meaning structurally, allowing a finite set of words to express an unbounded number of thoughts. My research investigates how children acquire the logical representations that underlie language, and thus how they learn abstract, uniquely human, concepts. A guiding hypothesis of this work is that many important conceptual changes in human development do not require the creation of entirely novel representations, but instead emerge from the representational resources provided by natural language.

My research asks how children learn words and structures that are inherently abstract. Although many words that children learn early in development refer to kinds of objects and events in the world (e.g., rabbit, hop), they also must learn words like some, every, and five, which don’t refer to objects, or even to their properties. Instead, these words refer to the properties of sets. For example, in a group of five rabbits, no individual animal has the property of “fiveness”. Further, many different types of sets can be described by five, including people, places, events, and ideas. These words, and other logical expressions in language, pose a special problem to children, and offer a unique window into the origin of human knowledge.

By studying how children acquire abstract words, my research program engages three fundamental problems that confront psychology. The first problem is how we can explain the acquisition of concepts that do not transparently reflect properties of the physical world. 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, I am 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 development? Finally, my research asks whether linguistic variation across cultures results in different ways of perceiving and reasoning about the world in adult language users. Do speakers perceive the world differently depending on the words provided by their language? Or do words merely express concepts that are available to all humans, regardless of cross-linguistic differences?

My plan for the coming years is to explore the relationship between linguistic structure and conceptual development by tackling problems ranging from how children learn the meanings of abstract words, to how they learn to count and do mathematical computations. To determine the contributions of cultural and linguistic diversity on conceptual development, the research will be conducted across a diverse range of sites including the US, Japan, Taiwan, India, and Mexico. This work will confront a key psychological problem – how abstract representations emerge in human cognition – while exploring the effect of linguistic diversity on language and conceptual development.

Research (click HERE for publications)

  • Mass / count distinction and acquisition
  • Counting
  • Language, thought, and object perception
  • Time words
  • Color words
  • Quantifier acquisition & counting
  • Pragmatic inference
  • Gradable adjectives and measurement
  • Singular / plural morphology
  • Numerical estimation and non-linguistic representation
  • Non-linguistic mathematical computation and the "mental abacus"
  • Moral development
  • Classifier languages and individuation

Positions

  • Associate Professor of Psychology & Linguistics, UCSD (2013 - Present)
  • Assistant Professor of Psychology, UCSD (2008-2013)
  • Canada Research Chair in Developmental Psychology, University of Toronto (2006 - 2008)

Education

  • B.A. McGill (Psychology; 1996-1999)
  • M.Sc. McGill (Communication Sciences & Disorders; 1999-2001)
  • A.M. Harvard (Psychology; 2002-2004)
  • Ph.D. Harvard (Psychology; 2004-2006)

Honors

  • Canada Research Chair in Developmental Psychology, 2006-2008.
  • 2005-2006 Herrnstein Prize for “the best dissertation that exhibits excellent scholarship, originality and breadth of thought, and a commitment to intellectual independence" by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University.
  • Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching, 2005.

Grants and Fellowships

  • National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant: How do children construct linguistic color categories? (2015-2018)
  • National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant: Collaborative Research: Language structure and number word learning (2014-2017)
  • National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant: Collaborative Research: RAPID: Evaluating the Cognitive and Educational Benefits of Mental Abacus Training (2015-2016)
  • James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award: Encoding Abstract Concepts in Language (2011-2017)
  • National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant: Mental abacus education and spatial representations of number (2009-2012)
  • UCSD Senate Award (2010)
  • UCSD Senate Award (2009)
  • Ontario Research Fund, Ministry of Research and Innovation of Ontario (2007)
  • Canada Research Chair (SSHRC; 2007-2012)
  • Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Grant (NSERC):Quantification in language acquisition and human evolution (2007-2012)
  • Connaught Matching Fund: Language variation and number knowledge (2007-2009)
  • Connaught New Faculty Award (2006)
  • Mind, Brain and Behavior Graduate Award (2005)
  • Allport Fund, Harvard University (2005)
  • McMaster's Fund, Harvard University (2004)
  • Connaught Fund: Language variation and number knowledge (2007-2008)
  • Graduate Society Dissertation Completion Fellowship, Harvard University (2005-2006)
  • Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Summer Research Award (2003, 2004).
  • Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Postgraduate Scholarship
  • Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Award (2002-2003).
  • Fonds pour la Formation de Chercheurs et l’Aide à la Recherche; Master’s Research Bursary (2000-2001).
  • Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Undergraduate Student Research Award (1999).

Professional Service

  • Associate Editor, Journal of Semantics
  • Editorial Board, Cognition
  • Editorial Board, Cognitive Development
  • Editorial Board, Semantics & Pragmatics
  • Review for: Cognition; Cognitive Science; Cognitive Psychology; Cortex; Cognitive Neuropsychology; Developmental Science; Language and Cognitive Processes; Language Learning and Development; Development Psychology; Child Development; Journal of Memory and Language; Journal of Semantics; Language and Cognitive Processes; Psychological Science; PNAS, etc.