Math Talk to Infants During Everyday Home Activities: Contextual Cues to Words About Number, Space, and Magnitude

Mackenzie S. Swirbul, Megan Shahnooshi, Rachel Ho, Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Infants begin to produce abstract “math” words–such as numbers (e.g., “two”), spatial terms (e.g., “down”), and magnitude words (e.g., “more”)–during their second postnatal year. Math words, as all words, are likely learned in the home setting during interactions with caregivers. However, everyday early exposure to math talk is understudied. What referents and social cues accompany caregivers’ math-related speech to infants? We examined U.S. infants’ (25 girls, 25 boys; ages 13 to 23 months; 60% white non-Latine) exposure to math words at home during everyday activities with their mothers. We documented three types of math words/phrases (i.e., number, spatial, and magnitude words), their referents (e.g., images in books), and the social cues that accompanied math talk (e.g., gestures). Math words appeared in 15% of mothers’ utterances (13,000+ math utterances in aggregate), increased with child age, mostly specified spatial concepts (e.g., location and direction), and tended to refer to objects and actions in the environment that were relevant to the child, such as toys, books, and the child’s body and behaviors. Social cues accompanied mothers’ math talk about half the time. Notably, certain types of referents and social cues aligned with specific types of math talk (e.g., manual gestures such as points accompanied talk about spatial features such as shapes). In the everyday home environment, infants experience frequent and varied math words, across a variety of activities, in the presence of salient social and contextual cues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Cognition and Development
StateAccepted/In press - 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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