Mentor: Dr. Lauren J Myers
We use symbols in everyday life, whether it be following traffic signs while driving to work, making sure to following care instructions while doing the laundry, or writing a letter, we are exposed to and use symbols in everyday life. Understanding how to read and use symbols is an important step in child development. The project described here strives to learn more about children’ understanding of gestural symbols in relation to previously found developmental trajectories and simple explanations of what the gesture represents and how it resembles it. Arbitrary gestures as used here refer to gestures that do not have an obvious resemblance to their referents – the things that the signs represent. Iconic symbols are those that do have a resemblance to their referent such, as the motion when pretending to rock a baby in ones arms.
We are interested in whether children can see the "transparency" in gestures that, to adults, resemble the things that they stand for. For instance, holding up your thumb and pinky to your ear means “to call” or “telephone” is a well known and iconic gesture whereas many people would not be able to guess that covering your face with your hands twice means “Halloween.” Children are not born with the insight to “see through” or recognize the resemblance between the gesture symbol to its referent, rather through experience they develop this understanding.
In the present study, we selected noun signs from American Sign Language Signs, using an a priori classification of iconicity versus relative arbitrariness to the referent. In Study 1, we will investigate whether children also perceive these signs as iconic and arbitrary. Three- to five-year-old children will be shown the signs and were asked to choose, from a series of six picture cards, which card they believe matches the gesture performed. We predict that older children will correctly identify the referent more often for the iconic gestures than for the arbitrary gestures, that younger children will score low in overall accuracy, and that younger children will show no difference in accuracy between conditions.
Next, Study 2 will examine the nature of the predicted effect of Study 1. Do younger children do not spontaneously see the resemblance to the referent for iconic gestures, or is the resemblance not apparent to them even upon explanation about the shared features between the symbol and referent? Thus, Study 2 will examine the effects of simple explanation about the gesture on children’s accuracy in identifying the correct referent. We hypothesize that in the condition with no explanation, participants would correctly identify the iconic gestures with more precision than the arbitrary gestures. In the condition with simple explanation, participants should perform equally well in the two categories because we will have provided them with insight into the commonalities between the symbol and the referent. These results should show that children’s developing insight into the commonalities between a symbol and its referent is one step in children's symbolic development. Through experience, we learn to “see through” a gesture to the referent that it stands for, regardless of whether the gesture is iconic or arbitrary.