What makes us so smart as a species, and what makes children such rapid learners? We argue that the answer to both questions lies in a mutual bootstrapping system comprised of (1) our exceptional capacity for relational cognition and (2) symbolic systems that augment this capacity. The ability to carry out structure-mapping processes of alignment and inference is inherent in human cognition. It is arguably the key inherent difference between humans and other great apes. But an equally important difference is that humans possess a symbolic language.
The acquisition of language influences cognitive development in many ways. We focus here on the role of language in a mutually facilitating partnership with relational representation and reasoning. We suggest a positive feedback relation in which structural alignment processes support the acquisition of language, and in turn, language—especially relational language—supports structural alignment and reasoning.
We review three kinds of evidence (a) evidence that analogical processes support children's learning in a variety of domains; (b) more specifically, evidence that analogical processing fosters the acquisition of language, especially relational language; and (c) in the other direction, evidence that acquiring language fosters children's ability to process analogies, focusing on spatial language and spatial analogies. We conclude with an analysis of the acquisition of cardinality—which we offer as a canonical case of how the combination of language and analogical processing fosters cognitive development.