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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?

  1. If someone can think, she can communicate with words.
  2. Acquiring words involves thinking from the start.

two directions:

If 1, then not 2

If 2, then not 1

‘we grasp the concept of truth only when we can communicate the contents---the propositional contents---of the shared experience, and this requires language’

Davidson 1997, 27

\citep[p.\ 27]{Davidson:1997wj}.
For now I'm assuming that Davidson is right that somoene who can think communicate with language. What account of language acquisition is consistent with this assumption? A clue is given by Davidson ...

‘The ability to discriminate, to act differentially in the face of clues to the presence of food, danger or safety, is present in all animals and does not require reason. Nor does the learning, even of complex routines, require reason, for it is possible to learn how to act without learning that anything is the case.’

\citep[p.\ 326]{Davidson:1982je}

Davidson (1982b, 326); cf. (1995c, 207)

So we might suppose that acquiring a language involves learning how to act without learning that anything is the case. This is the general idea. How can we make it concrete?
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

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.

A large further step has been taken when the child notices that others also make distinctive sounds at the same time the child is having the experiences that provoke its own volunteered sounds. For the adult, these sounds have a meaning, perhaps as one word sentences. The adult sees herself as doing a little ostensive teaching: “Eat,” “Red,” “Ball,” “Mamma,” “Milk,” “No.” There is now room for what the adult views as error: the child says “Block” when it is a slab. This move fails to be rewarded, and the conditioning becomes more complex’

(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)

Goldin-Meadow (2003, 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).

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?)


mind in action + social interaction

In this first lecture, I’ve tried to give you a sense of what the module will be about. The question is, How do humans first come to know simple facts about objects, words, colours, minds and the rest? I’ve suggested that reflecting on discoveries about how infants acquire knowledge of phyiscal objects challenges us to rethink the nature of minds and actions. And I’ve also suggested that reflecting on how humans learn---or create---their first words motivates the idea that the emergence of knowledge in development may hinge on quite sophisticated forms of social interaction.