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Social Interaction: Acquiring Your First Words

So far I have focussed on the nature of mental states and actions. This will indeed be a big theme. But a second big theme concerns the nature of social interaction. I’m quite struck by the fact that in science, research on the developmental origins of mind is neatly divided between researchers who want to know what is going on the head of an infant and researchers who want to know how infants interact with others and how these interactions facilitate their development. It seems obvious that we need to integrate both perspectives. This turns out not to be trivial.
Here is a bold conjecture about how humans come to know things.
\subsection{A Conjecture}

‘humans acquire knowledge at a pace far outstripping that found in any other species. Recent evidence indicates that interpersonal understanding ... plays a pivotal role in this achievement.’

\citep[p.\ 40]{Baldwin:2000qq}

Baldwin 2000, p. 40

‘functions traditionally considered hallmarks of individual cognition originated through the need to interact with others ...\ perception, action, and cognition are grounded in social interaction.’
\citep[p.\ 103]{Knoblich:2006bn}
Vygotskian Intelligence Hypothesis:

‘the unique aspects of human cognition ... were driven by, or even constituted by, social co-operation.’

\citep[p.\ 1]{Moll:2007gu}

Moll & Tomasello 2007, p. 1

‘human cognitive abilities ... [are] built upon social interaction’
\citep{sinigaglia:2008_roots} %*page
The challenge, of course, is to say *how* social interaction enables humans to come to know things.
Let me give you a hint about why social interaction will be important now. As in the case of knowledge of objects, this is a preview of a topic that we will later consider in more detail.
\subsection{How do children acquire words?}

How do children acquire their first words?

Our question is, How do humans first come to communicate using words?
Let's start with Bertrand Russell.

‘A child learning to speak is learning habits and associations which are just as much determined by the environment as the habit of expecting dogs to bark and cocks to crow’

\citep[p.\ 71]{Russell:1921ww}

(Russell 1921, p. 71)

But how does the environment determine habits and associations?
Wittgenstein suggests that the habits are determined by training.

‘[t]he child learns this language from the grown-ups by being trained to its use. I am using the word ‘trained’ in a way strictly analogous to that in which we talk of an animal being trained to do certain things. It is done by means of example, reward, punishment, and suchlike’

\citep[p.\ 77]{Wittgenstein:1972lj}

(Wittgenstein 1972, p. 77).

But how does this training work?
But now what are these habits and associations?
One answer is suggested by Quine.

‘the child’s early learning of a verbal response depends on society's reinforcement of the response in association with the stimulations that merit the response’

(\citep[p.\ 82]{Quine:1960fe}; compare \citep[pp.\ 28--9]{Quine:1974rd})

(Quine 1960, p. 82)

So this is the picture.
For each word, there is a set of 'stimulations' in response to which an utterance of that word would be appropriate.
For instance, we might suppose there's a set of banana stimulations in response to which an utterance of the word 'banana' would be appropriate.
The child then comes to use the word 'banana' in response to the bananana-stimuluations by means of being trained.
She is rewarded for using 'banana' correctly or punished for using it incorrectly (or both) and so she gradually zeros in on the correct pattern of use.


stimulations -> utter 'nana'


stimulations -> press lever

‘Crying is the first step toward language when crying is found to procure one or another form of relief or satisfaction. More specific sounds, imitated or not, are rapidly associated with more specific pleasures’

This seems to be approximately Davidson's own view.
‘Before we have an idea of truth or error, before the advent of concepts or propositional thought,

there is a rudiment of communication in the simple discovery that sounds produce results. Crying is the first step toward language when crying is found to procure one or another form of relief or satisfaction. More specific sounds, imitated or not, are rapidly associated with more specific pleasures.

Here use //p. 71// would be meaning, if anything like intention and meaning were in the picture.

(Davidson 2000: 70-1; see also Davidson 1999: 11).

\citep[pp.\ 70--1]{Davidson:2000mt}


If someone can think, she can communicate with words.


Acquiring words cannot involve thinking at the outset.


How could someone begin to acquire create words without being able to think?


By being trained to utter a particular word in response to certain simulations!


How do children actually acquire their first words?

Children acquiring language create their own words before they learn to use those of the adults around them.
‘Some children are so impatient that they coin their own demonstrative pronoun. For instance, at the age of about 12 months, Max would point to different objects and say “doh?,” some¬times with the intent that we do something with the objects, such as bring them to him, and sometimes just wanting us to appreciate their existence’ (\citealp[p.\ 122]{Bloom:2000qz}; see further \citealp{Clark:1981bi,Clark:1982hj}).
Even where children have mastered a lexical convention, they will readily violate it in their own utterances in order to get a point across.
‘From the time they first use words until they are about two or two-and-a-half, children noticeably and systematically overextend words. For example, one child used the word “apple” to refer to balls of soap, a rubber-ball, a ball-lamp, a tomato, cherries, peaches, strawberries, an orange, a pear, an onion, and round biscuits’ \citep[p.\ 35]{Clark:1993bv}

children create and creatively adapt words before (and after) learning those of the adults around them

INVESTIGATOR: what is that called?

SHEM: dat's uh vam.


SHEM: yeah.

INVESTIGATOR: why is it called a vam?

SHE: it vams all duh room ups all the water up ...

source: Eve Clark's CHILDES data

(Clark 1982; MacWhinney 2000)


Try to imagine you have never communicated linguistically with anyone. You realise that other people interact much more easily that you can. You're sitting here and everyone else is concentrating or making notes and obviously getting something out of being here that you aren't. But what? What is it that they are doing and how are they doing it?
Some deaf children in North America are brought up in purely oral environments without any sign language and therefore don't experience language at all. These children invent their own sign languages, which are called homesigns. Their invented languages are not as rich as those of children who experience other people's languages, but they have many of the same features (Goldin-Meadow 2002, 2003). These deaf children have somehow worked out for themselves what linguistic communication is and they have found a way of doing it. They have invented languages with no prior experience of language, and they have invented languages in a modality that people around them barely use in linguistic communication. These linguistically isolated deaf children have answered in practice the questions that these lectures are about.
What are their languages like? Here are some examples ...

Goldin-Meadow (2003, figure 1)

“Pointing at the Present to Refer to the Non-Present. David points at the chair at the head of the dining room table in his home and then produces a “sleep” gesture to tell us that his father (who typically sits in that chair) is asleep in another room. He is pointing at one object to mean another and, in this way, manages to use a gesture that is grounded in the present to refer to someone who is not in the room at all” (Goldin-Meadow 2003: 74, figure 1)

Children can create their own languages
with no experience of others' languages

We know this from studies of profoundly deaf children brought up in purely oral environments and therefore without experience of language (Goldin-Meadow 2003; Kegl, Senghas and Coppola 1999; Senghas and Coppola 2001). Individually or in groups these children invent their own signed languages. These languages are not as rich as those of children with experience of other people's languages but they have all of the essential features of language including lexicons and syntax (Goldin-Meadow 2002, 2003). The children invent gesture forms for words which they use with the same meanings in different contexts, they adopt standard orderings for combining words into sentences, and they use sentences in constructing narratives about past, present, future and hypothetical events. Thus one profoundly deaf child, Qing, describes how swordfish can poke a person so that she dies, and how they have long, straight noses and can swim (Goldin-Meadow 2003: 170).
“Examples of Conventional Emblems Whose Meanings Are Not as Transparent as They Seem. In panel A, David is shown producing a “break” gesture. Although this gesture looks like it should be used only to describe snapping long thin objects into two pieces with the hands, all of the children used the gesture to refer to objects of a variety of sizes and shapes, many of which had not been broken by the hands. In panel B, Marvin is shown producing a “give” gesture. This gesture looks like it should mean “put something small in my hand,” but all of the children used it to request the transfer of an object, big or small, to a place that was not necessarily the child's hand. Thus, many of the gestures that the deaf children used were not as transparent in meaning as a quick glance would suggest” (Goldin-Meadow 2003: 76, figure 2).

Goldin-Meadow (2003, figure 2)

Goldin-Meadow (2003, figure 11)

“David is holding a toy and uses it to point at a tray of snacks that his mother is carrying = snack (the tray is not shown in the drawing). Without dropping the toy, he jabs it several times at his mouth = eat. Finally, he points with the toy at me sprawled on the floor in front of him (not shown) = Susan” (Goldin-Meadow 2003: 110, figure 1).
“With this long string of gestures, all produced before she relaxed her hands, Qing is indicating that swordfish can poke a person (proposition 1) so that the person becomes dead (proposition 2), that they have long, straight noses (proposition 3), and that they swim (proposition 4)” (Goldin-Meadow 2003: 170).
In more detail: “Complex Gesture Sentences. Qing [Chinese child] produces five distinct gestures that she combines into a single complex gesture sentence (that is, she produces the string of gestures without breaking her flow of movement). The five gestures are illustrated in this figure: Qing points at a picture of a swordfish (= swordfish). She jabs at her own chest as though piercing her heart (= poke-in-chest). She crooks her index finger and holds it in the air (this is an emblem in Taiwan that hearing speakers use to mean dead). She holds her index finger on her nose and extends it outward (= long-straight-nose). She wiggles her palm back and forth (= swim).” (Goldin-Meadow 2003: 171, figure 22)

Goldin-Meadow (2003, figure 22)

Can we say something about the general features of homesigns?

Gesture forms are:

  • stable
  • 'gesture forms do not change capriciously with changing situations'
    i. ‘The gestures are stable in form, although they needn’t be. It would be easy for the children to make up a new gesture to fit every new situation (and, indeed, that appears to be what hearing speakers do when they gesture along with their speech, cf. McNeill, 1992). But that’s not what the deaf children do. They develop a stable store of forms which they use in a range of situations-they develop a lexicon, an essential component of all languages (Goldin-Meadow, Butcher, Mylander, & Dodge, 1994).’ \citep[p.\ 1389]{Goldin-Meadow:2002dq}
  • arbitrary
  • 'gesture--meaning pairs have arbitrary aspects within an iconic framework'
  • systematic
  • 'the gestures the children develop are composed of parts that form paradigms, or systems of contrasts. When the children invent a gesture form, they do so with two goals in mind-the form must not only capture the meaning they intend (a gesture-world relation), but it must also contrast in a systematic way with other forms in their repertoire (a gesture-gesture relation).' \citep[p.\ 1389]{Goldin-Meadow:2002dq}

Gesture forms are used:

  • with different forces (to ask questions, make comments, request things, ...)
  • to talk about past, future and hypothetical things
  • to tell stories
  • to communicate with oneself
  • to talk about gestures (metalanguage)

Goldin-Meadow 2002

social interaction

So how is this related to the idea (mentioned a moment ago) that social interaction plays a key role in the developmental emergence of knowledge? My suggestion, to be developed more fully later in the couse, is that children come to know their first words not through being trained or taught, nor through observing others and mapping words to concepts. Instead, some children come to know their first words through creating words and making themselves understood to others. That is, through social interaction.
One consequence of this is that it seems we must reject the claim, made by Davidson and others, that If someone can think, she can communicate with words ...


If someone can think, she can communicate with words.


Acquiring words cannot involve thinking at the outset.


How could someone begin to acquire create words without being able to think?


By being trained to utter a particular word in response to certain simulations!


How do children actually acquire their first words?

We’ve just been considering how children do acquire their first words.
So here's my challenge to Davidson and others who hold that anyone can communicate with language can think:
explain how someone could begin to create words without already being able to think.
As I've been explaining, the challenge arises because children who have no language and no significant experience of language can create languages of their own.
So we have to reject this answer.
For my part, I think it's probably time to drop the assumption. Not because we've shown it's wrong, but because there's no good argument for it an a significant obstactle to accepting it. So let's return to our overall question without that assumption. (Recall that the question was, How do humans first come to communicate with words?)