Sunday, June 19, 2011
[David Gates, Color Run Riot, set to "Invisible Colors" by Russ Malone, posted May, 2011]
"There is a surprising disconnect between what children seem to know about colors and numbers and what they actually know when tested," writes Melody Dye of Stanford University in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind ("Why Johnny Can't Name His Colors," SAM, May/June 2011, pg. 48). "Nailing down just what 'red' or 'three' means is a difficult hurdle in mastering language, and even older children sometimes slip up and reveal a less than expert grasp of the concept."
Dye's research demonstrates that, even after hours of drilling, most two- and three-year-olds and children as old as six cannot identify colors accurately without contextual prompts. It appears that context is critical, which "may explain why children, across every language studied, invariably learn their nouns before their colors."
In English, color words may be especially tricksy because we tend to say "red balloon" rather than "the balloon that is red" (i.e., we typically use the adjective prenominally instead of postnominally). Order provides context: the brain must process the prenominal without the "hook" provided by the noun, so has a much wider spectrum of possible meanings to search. Using a postnominal construction helps "narrow 'red' to being an attribute of the balloon and not some general property of the world at large."
Also, children tend to understand a color word used postnominally as a descriptor like "wet" or "sharp," whereas they see a color word used prenominally as being part of the object's name ("Indigo Bunting" versus "the bunting that is indigo").
Dye's findings slot in with the provocative research on the linguistic classification of color perception sparked by Brent Berlin & Paul Kay's Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969), and most recently updated with the 2009 publication of The World Color Survey (Kay et al.) Click here and here for more.