Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Little is known about the neural underpinnings of number word comprehension in young children. Here we investigated the neural processing of these words during the crucial developmental window in which children learn their meanings and asked whether such processing relies on the Approximate Number System. ERPs were recorded as 3- to 5-year-old children heard the words one, two, three, or six while looking at pictures of 1, 2, 3, or 6 objects. The auditory number word was incongruent with the number of visual objects on half the trials and congruent on the other half. Children's number word comprehension predicted their ERP incongruency effects. Specifically, children with the least number word knowledge did not show any ERP incongruency effects, whereas those with intermediate and high number word knowledge showed an enhanced, negative polarity incongruency response (Ninc) over centroparietal sites from 200 to 500 msec after the number word onset. This negativity was followed by an enhanced, positive polarity incongruency effect (Pinc) that emerged bilaterally over parietal sites at about 700 msec. Moreover, children with the most number word knowledge showed ratio dependence in the Pinc (larger for greater compared with smaller numerical mismatches), a hallmark of the Approximate Number System. Importantly, a similar modulation of the Pinc from 700 to 800 msec was found in children with intermediate number word knowledge. These results provide the first neural correlates of spoken number word comprehension in preschoolers and are consistent with the view that children map number words onto approximate number representations before they fully master the verbal count list.