When we first moved to the small suburban town we still live in, we quickly realized we needed to buy a second car. Nora and Jim were just one and two and a half years old, only barely beginning to understand language. After we made our purchase, sometimes we drove in the old car (a Subaru station wagon), and sometimes in the new car (a Plymouth minivan). Since neither child could pronounce words as complicated as “minivan,” they had to come up with their own way to refer to the vehicles. They called the Subaru the “red car” and the van the “blue car.”
But there were many other ways they could have referred to each vehicle. They could have said “new car” and “old car,” “big car” and “little car,” or even just “van” and “car.” Why did they refer to them by color?
Most research on young children’s word choice in ambiguous situations like this has focused on locating objects. Do you say the car is “on the driveway” or “outside the house”? This doesn’t address those other possibilities, such as size, shape, or color. One researcher, Graeme Halford, has speculated that children use the words which require simpler reasoning. “The dog is brown” requires simpler logic than “the dog is bigger than the cat.” Even more complex is a statement such as “The chair in the living room is softer than the chair in the dining room.” Similarly, while Jim and Nora had both learned colors, they hadn’t yet learned how to categorize station wagons and minivans. Any object which transported people around on streets was a “car.”
Although this explanation seems reasonable, no one had confirmed it experimentally until Jodie Plumert and Penney Nichols-Whitehead asked 3- and 4-year-olds to hide a tiny toy mouse in a dollhouse while a toy troll hid behind the house. The idea was to find out which words the children used to explain to the troll where to find the mouse. Here’s a picture of the house:
The house contained several large pieces of furniture, each accompanied by two small, nearly identical objects: hats, towels, bags, and so on. The objects differed only in color and in location: The hat with the blue ribbon was on the couch, while the hat with the red ribbon was next to the couch. If the mouse was hidden under the hat with the blue ribbon on the couch, how would young children explain where it was, and would their responses differ from adults? Here are the results:
As you can see, adults used location (“it’s under the hat on the couch”) to explain the where the mouse was hidden nearly every time — significantly more often than they used color. Meanwhile, three-year-olds used color significantly more often than location, while four-year-olds didn’t prefer one type of reference over the other.
Plumert and Nichols-Whitehead argue that the adults are taking into account the perspective of the seeker when giving directions — since location is more relevant to a seeker than color, adults give location information, even though it’s more complex than color.
Two more experiments demonstrated that children responded in a similar fashion when objects were a different size rather than a different color (a big hat and a small hat instead of a red hat and a blue hat) — preferring to reference a physical property of the object rather than its location.
In a final study, the two small objects where the mouse was hidden were identical in every way except location, so now the only way to explain how to find the mouse was by referring to its location. We know adults can perform this task, so the study was only conducted on children. Here are the results:
Both three- and four-year-olds rarely spontaneously used location to refer to the mouse’s hiding place. Even after being prompted by the experimenter, the three-year-olds referred to the objects’ location less than half the time, and four-year-olds did it less than 75 percent of the time.
This strongly suggests that the reason small children don’t use location to refer to objects is that the concept is too complex for them. Even though location would be more useful to a listener looking for an object, if kids struggle with the concept of location, then a location-based reference to the object is unlikely to be produced.
This is not to say that kids aren’t capable of understanding the needs of listeners. Studies have found, for example, that young children will use pointing and other gestures less frequently when explaining something to a person wearing a blindfold.
Plumert, J.M., Nichols-Whitehead, P. (2007). Developmental differences in preferences for using color, size, and location information to disambiguate hiding places. Journal of Cognitive Development, 8(4), 427-454. DOI: 10.1080/15248370701612977