Monkey See, Monkey Do: Learning Symbols Through Conventionality

Posted May 12th, 2010 at 5:06 pm.

Megan Roberts
Mentor: Dr. Lauren Myers

Understanding how children learn gesture and word labels for objects provides insight into language acquisition and early cognitive development. To date, much research has focused on the importance of iconicity of gestures, or the resemblance of a gesture to its referential object. Previous literature on the subject indicates that children are able to understand iconic gestures much earlier than they understand arbitrary gestures, or gestures that do not necessarily resemble the referential object or action. However, this might have more to do with the conventionality of these gestures than their iconicity. Conventionality refers to the repetitive use of the symbol or gesture in a communicative manner during social interactions. To truly determine the roles of iconicity and conventionality, we have designed an experiment to assess children’s ability to differentiate iconic gestures used in a conventional context from those used in a non-conventional setting.

In this study, we will manipulate the conventionality of the gestures in the first experiment session by teaching the children conventional gesture labels for 4 sets of objects and word labels combined with actions for another 4 non-conventional sets of objects. After a period of 5-10 days, we will test children with a gesture label for each of the 8 novel object sets. Four of these gesture labels will be ones they have previously used as conventional symbols with the experimenter. The other four gesture labels will be extracted from the actions that children learned in the non-conventional condition. For instance, in session 1 the children learned that an egg-shaped novel object may be opened, and in session 2 the gesture extracted from that action is an opening gesture made with two hands. Although the gesture can be performed by all of the four objects in each set, the target object most closely resembles the demonstration object to which the children were introduced during session one. We will then analyze their ability to map gesture labels to target objects, as measured by the number of correct object selections in each condition.

If iconicity is more important than conventionality in children’s symbol learning, then during the second interaction with the children, there should be no difference found in the children’s recall of gesture-object matches between the conventional and non-conventional conditions On the other hand, if conventionality, rather than iconicity, is a more useful component of children’s understanding of symbols, then the participants should be able to better match the conventionalized gesture labels to their appropriate target objects during the second interaction of this two-part study.

The knowledge that iconicity or conventionality plays a more important part in symbol learning provides scientists with information about the developing lexicon and children’s understanding of symbols. In turn, knowing whether iconicity or conventionality increases children’s ability to retain information could influence teaching techniques for children in early development. The results of this study have implications into the development of cognitive processes involving language, symbolic understanding, and symbol-to-referent-mapping.

Filed under: 2009,Myers, Dr. Lauren,Roberts, Megan by Ann Dixon

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