Cocoa Puff or Cocoa Puffs: The language of nothing

In honor of Tabitha turning 11 this week, here’s a conversation from 6 years ago. 

We have a little family tradition. When we go grocery shopping the weekend before your birthday, you can choose one box of any cereal you want-no restrictions. In the weeks and months leading up to the grand event, much time is spent in the cereal aisle weighing the advantages of the various sugar-laden options.

The week before turning five, Tabitha nearly dropped the ball. She just grabbed the first box of anything at hand. I don’t remember what it was, but it seemed out of character for her. I reminded her of the cereals she had been coveting as recently as the previous week.

She went for the generic Cocoa Puffs.

I steered her towards the real deal. If you’re only gonna eat ’em once a year, you might as well have the sugar-addled bird bouncing off the box in front of you, right?

A sugar-addled bird

One morning shortly afterwards, we had this conversation:

Tabitha: Do I have Cocoa Puffs or Cocoa Puff in my hand?

Me: Well, you have four Cocoa Puffs.

T: [with only one in her hand now] Do I have Cocoa Puffs or Cocoa Puff?

Me: You have Cocoa Puff.

T: [huge smile] Right!

Me: [with empty hand displayed] Do I have Cocoa Puffs or Cocoa Puff in my hand?

T: [silent but smirking]

Me: Well…Is it Cocoa Puff or Cocoa Puffs?

T: [continued silence]

Me: I have zero…

T: [bigger smile]

Me: …Cocoa…

T: Puffs!

Me: Yeah. Isn’t that weird? If you have one, it’s Puff; if you have none it’s Puffs.

T: I knew that.

Me: Of course you did.

T: No! I knew that; I was showing you that [you had zero] by not saying anything-zero words!

So what do we learn?

Children listen carefully to language patterns. They do not learn a native language like a second language in school. The rules are not carefully explained to them one at a time.

Instead they listen, speak, get corrected, and try again. All of this can be tremendously fun for child and parent alike.

It is an odd quirk of English that zero is plural, grammatically speaking. We talk about having one child, but zero children. More commonly, we use no instead of zero, as in My neighbors have no children. The grammar is the same either way; saying My neighbors have no child sounds funny to our ears.

Starting the conversation

In discussing place value, zero is sometimes called a place holder. To understand that, children need to understand zero as a number. They need to understand that zero can legitimately answer the question, How many are there?

We talk a lot about zero in our house. You can too. Ask your children, “Would you rather have one cookie, two cookies or zero cookies?” Ask who has more of something, even when one of the people has none.

The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland gives an example of this. The March Hare offers Alice “some more tea”. When Alice says she can’t possibly have more, since she hasn’t had any yet, the March Hare replies, “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

Another silly language game we play in our house is this. If you look in the pantry and see that there are three cookies left, you can report this in the following two ways: (1) “I checked the cookies; there are three left,” and (2) “There are three cookies.” If, however, there are no cookies in the pantry, these two ways of reporting the sad fact become: (1) “I checked the cookies; there are none left,” and (2) “There are none cookies.” We like to treat none as a number. There is no good reason for this; it is for personal amusement purposes only.

Postscript

Tabitha again chose Cocoa Puffs on this, the week of her eleventh birthday. She is enjoying them, but she has also stated the obvious—they look like rabbit poop.

If it’s true for other language…

…it’s probably true for number language too.

University of Pennsylvania researchers have studied the quality of parents’ speech to their toddlers, and its relationship to the children’s vocabulary later on. “Quality” of speech was measured by how well an adult observer could guess a common word uttered by the parent, when the observer could see the parent and child, but with sound muted.

In the researchers’ words:

Strikingly, this parent-input quality difference at child age 14–18 months [about 1.5 years] significantly correlated with the children’s vocabularies at 54 mo [about 4.5 years].

The ways in which parents were talking to their children at age 1 had an effect on the number of words the children knew at age 4.

The way you talk to children like this…

Tabitha at 21 months (a bit OLDER than the subjects in the beginning of the study)

Tabitha at 21 months (a bit OLDER than the subjects in the beginning of the study)

…has a profound impact on what they know when they are like this…

Tabitha at 54 months, the age of the subjects at the end of the study.

Tabitha at 54 months, the age of the subjects at the end of the study. She is on her way to her first day of Pre-K.

It probably goes for number words and shapes, too.

So let’s get out there and talk math with those little ones!

Count stuff, use number words at every opportunity, point out and talk about shapes. Start them young. And if you haven’t started them young, start now.

It’ll be fun, I promise.

I will help you.

Click here for a newspaper summary.

Click here for a pre-publication version of the paper (PDF, link checked and valid, August 2013).