Skip to main content

Naming the Living Things

“Name everything you can think of that is alive.”

How would you or your child respond to this prompt? Would your list be full of relatives, animals from movies and books, or perhaps neighborhood pets? Would the poppies blooming on the front steps make the list, or the oak tree towering over the backyard? And how might your list compare to that of someone from a different linguistic or cultural background, or someone with more or less contact with the natural world?

Researchers who administered this simple free-listing task to three different age groups in three disparate communities in Argentina found that the responses illuminated universal developmental processes as well as the specific linguistic and cultural forces shaping the children’s understanding of the natural world. The investigation drew its participants from a rural indigenous group of Amerindians in the Chaco forest known as the Wichí, a rural majority-culture group of Spanish speakers in the Santa Fe province, and an urban majority-culture group of Spanish speakers also living in the Santa Fe province.

In the study, conducted by Andrea S. Taverna of the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnicas in conjunction with our researchers at Northwestern University (as well as other researchers from the Consejo Nacional), the children were simply asked to name as many living things as they could within a several-minute time period. The comparison between the lists of Wichí speakers and Spanish speakers was of particular interest for several reasons. First, unlike many Amerindian populations, the Wichí speak their language from birth and typically only begin learning Spanish around age six. Additionally, as established in a survey administered as part of the study, the Wichí have more extensive direct contact with the natural world than either the rural or urban Spanish-speaking populations with whom they were compared. Finally, the Wichí have a distinct folkbiological lexicon that connects entities from the biological and spiritual world. Their phrasal description hunhat lheley, which has no precise translation in English but can be roughly understood as living things, encompasses all humans, animals, plants, and spiritual beings. The researchers wondered whether and how this unique, over-arching linguistic and cultural category might be reflected in the Wichí children’s naming process.

Children from each community were divided into three different age groups: 5- to 6-year-olds, 8- to 9-year-olds, and 11- to 14-year-olds. The researchers discovered a strikingly consistent developmental trend among the different communities as well as several noteworthy commonalities across all age groups. They found that a general framework for organizing living things is in place by age five, and that this framework is enhanced over development and with experience. They also discovered that children across age groups in each of the communities focused on animals over plants, suggesting that when teaching children about plants, linking the new information to their existing knowledge of animals may be a successful approach.

In addition to these commonalities, the children’s lists also reflected their unique linguistic, cultural, and experiential backgrounds. In one analysis, researchers coded names of the animals listed as native (to Argentina), exotic, or domestic. They predicted that urban Spanish-speaking children, who get much of their knowledge about animals from media or artifacts as opposed to direct contact, would be more likely to list exotic animals than the other two groups. The results confirmed this hypothesis: the urban Spanish-speaking Children named more exotic animals and fewer natives than the rural Spanish-speaking children, who, in turn, named more exotics and fewer natives than the Wichí. The Wichí-speaking children’s lists also included far more specific biological entities from the forest, reflecting their expertise in that area. And finally, the hierarchical level of the names the children listed varied across communities, revealing differences in their familiarity with different plants and animals as well as the cultural importance attached to them. The Wichí children provided considerably more specific names for biological kinds than their Spanish-speaking counterparts, who, in turn, were more likely to provide higher-order names.

The results of this elegantly simple study demonstrate how language, experience, and culture shape children’s acquisition and organization of fundamental folkbiological concepts. With children’s developmental trajectories and particular backgrounds in mind, parents and teachers can use this information to guide children’s acquisition of biological knowledge.

The full paper can be found in the Journal of Culture and Cognition or accessed here.