Researcher Discovers Five-Year-Olds can Understand Time Metaphors

Posted On January 14, 2013 by Jeremy Craig
Categories Discovery Tags

ATLANTA – Children by age 5 are able to understand two types of linguistic metaphors for time based on their experience, a Georgia State University researcher has found.

Lauren Stites, a graduate student under Şeyda Özçalışkan, assistant professor of psychology, studied 3-to-6-year-old children to test their understanding of three types of metaphors for time.

One, called “ego-moving,” represents a person moving towards time, such as in the statement, “We’re coming up on Christmas.” Another, called “time-moving,” represents time coming towards a person, such as in the sentence, “Exams are coming up.”

A third, “sequence as relative position on a path,” has two times placed with each other, such as in the sentence, “Lunch follows breakfast.”

“We found that children understand earlier and more easily ego-moving and time-moving metaphors – the two metaphors based on the child’s own bodily experience,” Stites said. “They had more difficulty with sequence-as-relative-position-on-a-path metaphors which are further removed from their immediate bodily experiences, thus suggesting the importance of early sensorimotor experiences on the development of higher level cognitive abilities, such as metaphors.”

Stites looked at the cognitive and linguistic factors that would account for children’s understanding of metaphors, examining language levels and understanding of the concept of time.

“We showed them a 30-second sand timer and asked the children to walk slowly around a table while the sand ran down, then turned the timer over and asked them to walk quickly,” she said. “After that, we asked them if the sand timer moved the same way when they moved quickly or slowly to see if they understood that time always moves the same regardless of how fast they themselves are moving.”

“A child’s grasp of the time concept in the sand timer task was a good predictor of his or her ability to understand metaphors about time, but not to explain such metaphors. Children’s language ability, on the other hand, was a good predictor of how well they explained such time metaphors,” Özçalışkan said, ”suggesting the selective influence of cognitive and linguistic factors on different aspects of metaphor development.”

The studies appear in two research articles, “Teasing apart the role of cognitive and verbal factors in children’s early metaphorical abilities,” in the journal Metaphor & Symbol, and “Developmental changes in children’s comprehension and explanation of spatial metaphors for time,” published in the Journal of Child Language.

Jan. 14, 2013