Iconicity and Conventionality in Children’s Symbol Learning

Posted April 21st, 2010 at 1:30 pm.

Madeline Berkowitz
Mentor: Dr. Lauren Myers

The current study seeks to investigate the role of iconicity and conventionality in children’s gesture learning. Iconicity is the extent to which a symbol looks like its referent (the thing that it represents). Conventionality is the meaning that is assigned to an object with repeated use between social partners. Our culture has many conventional gestures. For instance, people may place their arms in an oval shape and rock them back and forth to represent a baby. Most people find this gesture easy to understand. Is this because the gesture is iconic (e.g., the action resembles that of rocking a baby) or because it is conventional (e.g., we have learned that people use this gesture to represent rocking a baby)?

Our research will experimentally manipulate the conventionality and iconicity of gesture symbols in order to examine which of these features is most important in 3-to 5-year-olds’ symbol learning. Each child will participate in two experimental sessions. In the first session, children will view eight novel toys. Each toy will be assigned an iconic gesture; that is a gesture that looks like the action we performed with the object. For example, the gesture for a hollow tube is placing the thumb and fingers in a circle and raising it to your eye. Pilot studies with adults have shown that the chosen gestures match the toys that they represent. For half of the objects, the gesture will be conventionalized during the experiment session and for the other four, the gesture will not be conventionalized. For the conventional toys, two experimenters will establish the iconic conventional gesture through a social interaction. The child will be asked to perform the gesture and choose the toy from among two other toys. The procedure for the unconventional toys is identical except that instead of seeing a gesture the child will see an action performed on the toy. In the second session, the child will see the experimenter perform a gesture. For the conventional toys, the gesture will be identical to the gesture that the child saw in the first session. For the unconventional toys, the gesture will be derived from the action the child saw in the first session. The child will then be asked to choose the object that matches the gesture from among four toys. One toy, the target object will closely resemble the toy the child saw in the first session. The other four toys appear very different from the toy the child saw in the first session, but have the same function. For instance, for the hollow tube mentioned above, the target is a similar hollow tube and the distracter objects are a plastic disk with holes, a bracelet and a ball with holes. Each of these objects could be brought to the face and looked through as the gesture suggests.

If children are more successful on the conventional trials than the non-conventional trials, it will indicate that conventionality is more important than iconicity. However, if children choose the target objects with equal success across conditions, it will indicate that iconicity is sufficient, and that conventional use of a gesture does not impact children’s understanding of gestures as symbols.

Symbols are everywhere in our world. At one time it was thought that the relationship between iconic symbols and what they represent was self-evident. However, developmental psychology research reveals that relationship between iconic symbols and their referents is not obvious to young children. We seek to learn more about what children do and do not understand about the nature of symbols. Our research also has implications for the development of communication symbols for non-verbal individuals. It is important to know what aspects of symbols are most understood when choosing symbols for these systems.

Filed under: 2009,Berkowitz, Madeline,Myers, Dr. Lauren by Ann Dixon

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