Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Origins of social groups in infancy

Kinzler et al. report interesting observations on how language influences the selection of social groups by human infants.
What leads humans to divide the social world into groups, preferring their own group and disfavoring others? Experiments with infants and young children suggest these tendencies are based on predispositions that emerge early in life and depend, in part, on natural language. Young infants prefer to look at a person who previously spoke their native language. Older infants preferentially accept toys from native-language speakers, and preschool children preferentially select native-language speakers as friends. Variations in accent are sufficient to evoke these social preferences, which are observed in infants before they produce or comprehend speech and are exhibited by children even when they comprehend the foreign-accented speech. Early-developing preferences for native-language speakers may serve as a foundation for later-developing preferences and conflicts among social groups.
And here is the fascinating introduction to the article, whose PDF version can be obtained here.
The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivour of Ephraim said, "Let me go over," the men of Gilead asked him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he replied, "No," they said, "All right, say ‘Shibboleth’." If he said, "Sibboleth," because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.

Judges 12:5–6.

The biblical story of Shibboleth speaks of the ancient massacre of those who could not correctly pronounce a phrase, thereby revealing their out-group status. Modern-day Shibboleth is ubiquitous: United States history alone abounds with examples of linguistic discrimination, from the severing of the tongues of slaves who spoke no English, to the forbidding of the public speaking of German during World War II and the execution of Russian speakers after the Alaskan purchase (1). Recent world history provides examples of linguicide paired with genocide of the Kurds in Turkey (2) and of imposed language policies initiating anti-Apartheid riots in South Africa (3). Favor for one's native language group pervades contemporary politics in more subtle ways as well, for example, in recent debates concerning bilingual education, the politics of sign languages in deaf education, or proposals to make English the national language of the United States. We present evidence that the connection between language and human social groups has roots in human infancy, where it guides early-developing social preferences and predisposes humans to interact with members of their own linguistic group.

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