Are children colorblind or color-confused?

Aug. 12, 2010, 12:10 a.m.

Tracing the nuances of learning vocabulary

A series of color swatches are laid in front of you – each swatch a different color. A researcher asks you which one is red, and you pick the one you believe is red. You then repeat the name game for every color present.

This was the initial test administered by psychology Prof. Michael Ramscar and his staff to 34 subjects in a study on how children learn color words. Sounds easy, right? Not quite. While the test would have been easy for anyone with even a basic knowledge of color, the vast majority of the kids failed.

“Is my child colorblind?” worried the concerned parents.

Not necessarily, said Ramscar. He attributed the high percentage of failures to the quirkiness of the English language, not the subjects’ personal ability to distinguish colors. His hypothesis, published this month in Cognitive Science, was that English-speaking children do not learn color words as well because in English, color identifiers are often said before the noun.

Ramscar’s hypothesis is based upon a unique view on how language works.

“Basically, you’re predicting what I’m going to say as I’m speaking,” he said. “In the gap between what you’re expecting and what I’m actually saying, you are predicting the probability of what I’m going to say based on signals I give you.”

But why does this make learning colors so difficult? According to researcher Melody Dye ’07, children still learning colors in any language may have difficulty isolating which hue is being indicated by specific color words.

In most languages, this is not as prominent a problem because nouns are generally said first. For example, in Spanish, if you wanted to refer to a blue chair, you would say “la silla azul.” When directly translating to English, “silla” means chair, while “azul” means blue. The color comes after the noun, meaning that a child learning colors will fix his attention on the noun and will thus be able to see how the color word describes the hue of the object.

Unfortunately for English speakers, English is relatively unique in the fact that the noun is said after the adjective.

“There is a 70-30 probability that we would say ‘the red ball’ rather than something like ‘the ball that’s red,’” Dye said. “[The more common phrasing] is really informative if you know colors, but if you don’t know what red is, then you get no signal from the word.”

This phenomenon is also why it is difficult for a child to learn quantity and size words, Ramscar said. However, Ramscar explained that those three types of adjectives — color, quantity and size — are the only ones where this problem occurs.

“Kids have no problem learning most adjectives, such as ‘wet’ and ‘broken,’” he said. “If you look at statistics, we are more likely to say ‘the chair is broken’ or ‘the dog is wet.’ You wouldn’t say ‘the broken chair’ until you have both established that the chair is broken.”

Ramscar tested his theory by giving all the children from the original color test a crash course in color training. For one group, the training was done as conventional English dictates: “the yellow house.” For the other group, the noun went before the adjective: “the house that’s yellow.” After this, the children were administered the swatch test again. The results matched the hypothesis; the first group failed to improve, while the second group improved significantly.

The findings point toward potential alternatives to early language education.

“One reaction we often got from parents is ‘How should we train our kids? Should we put them in crammers [cram school]?’” Ramscar said.

“But it isn’t really about that,” he added. “To train more efficiently, just think about how you talk to kids. You could say ‘the red ball,’ but you will get much better results if you say ‘the ball that’s red.’”

For many children, this minor vocabulary switch could mean the difference between passing and failing a test crucial to diagnosing color blindness.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly reported that the study was published in Scientific Mind. The study was published in Cognitive Science. The story also said color identifiers are said before nouns in English; they are often, but not always, said before nouns. Finally, Ramscar’s hypothesis — that English-speaking children do not learn color words as well — does not imply that color learning is necessarily easier in other languages, as an earlier version of the story reported.

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