Language Systematizes Attention: How Relational Language Enhances Relational Representation by Guiding Attention

Language can affect cognition, but through what mechanism? Substantial past research has focused on how labeling can elicit categorical representation during online processing. We focus here on a particularly powerful type of language—relational language—and show that relational language can enhance relational representation in children through an embodied attention mechanism. Four-year-old children were given a color-location conjunction task, in which they were asked to encode a two-color square, split either vertically or horizontally (e.g., red on the left, blue on the right), and later recall the same configuration from its mirror reflection. During the encoding phase, children in the experimental condition heard relational language (e.g., “Red is on the left of blue”), while those in the control condition heard generic non-relational language (e.g., “Look at this one, look at it closely”). At recall, children in the experimental condition were more successful at choosing the correct relational representation between the two colors compared to the control group. Moreover, they exhibited different attention patterns as predicted by the attention shift account of relational representation (Franconeri et al., 2012). To test the sustained effect of language and the role of attention, during the second half of the study, the experimental condition was given generic non-relational language. There was a sustained advantage in the experimental condition for both behavioral accuracies and signature attention patterns. Overall, our findings suggest that relational language enhances relational representation by guiding learners' attention, and this facilitative effect persists over time even in the absence of language. Implications for the mechanism of how relational language can enhance the learning of relational systems (e.g., mathematics, spatial cognition) by guiding attention will be discussed.

Yuan, L., Novack, M., Uttal, D., & Franconeri, S. (2023). Language systematizes attention: How relational language enhances relational representation by guiding attention. Cognition, 243. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2023.105671.