Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Prelinguistic infants, but not chimps, signal absent entities

Interesting work from Tomasello's group showing that nonlinguistic skills for displaced reference precede and underlie similar linguistic reference:
One of the defining features of human language is displacement, the ability to make reference to absent entities. Here we show that prelinguistic, 12-month-old infants already can use a nonverbal pointing gesture to make reference to absent entities. We also show that chimpanzees—who can point for things they want humans to give them—do not point to refer to absent entities in the same way. These results demonstrate that the ability to communicate about absent but mutually known entities depends not on language, but rather on deeper social-cognitive skills that make acts of linguistic reference possible in the first place. These nonlinguistic skills for displaced reference emerged apparently only after humans' divergence from great apes some 6 million years ago.
In carrying out the experiments the authors:
...confronted 12-month-old prelinguistic human infants and adult chimpanzees with two new situations in which they wanted something they could not see. In both situations, participants first repeatedly saw a human adult place several desired objects of the same kind on top of one platform, while also placing undesired objects of another kind on another, similar platform. Then, for the test, the desired objects were removed. In the occluded-referent condition, participants then saw the adult take another object of the desired kind and place it under its platform, out of sight. In this case, even though participants could not see the desired object, they knew it was there under the platform, and so they could potentially request it by pointing to its location. In the absent-referent condition, in contrast, after the adult removed the desired objects from the platform, she did not add any more, so that the usual location of the desired kind of objects was empty. In this case, if participants pointed to the now-empty platform, it would mean that they expected the adult would be able to infer that what they wanted was one of the missing kind of objects, that is, one of the kind both the adult and the participants knew was usually on that platform.

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