Thursday, August 28, 2014

More on the nature of first words

About two weeks ago, M – now 13 months old – started using "dada" to refer to me. She has been producing "da" and "dada" as part of her babble for quite a while, but this was touching and new. It's a wonderful moment when your daughter first calls to you using language, not just a wordless cry.

Of course, congruent with what happened with "brown bear," I haven't heard much "dada" in about a week. She still seems to understand it (and likely did before producing it), but the production really seems to come and go with these first words. Now she's big into balls and appears to produce the sequence "BA(l)" pretty consistently while pointing to them. (I'm writing "BA(l)" because there's a hint of a liquid at the end, in contrast to the punctate "ba" that she uses for dogs and birds that we see at the park).

I want to comment on something neat that happened, though. In the very first day of M's "dada" production, we saw two really interesting novel uses of the word, both supporting my previous discussion about the flexibility of early language.

The first use was during a game we often play with M where she unpacks and repacks all the cards in my wallet. A couple of years ago, I lost my credit cards several times, and the bank started putting my photo on my card. (I think they do this for folks who are at high risk for identity theft). During the wallet-unpacking game, M took one of the cards, pointed to the photo of me (a small, blurry, old photo at that), and said "dada."

Kids do understand and recognize photos and other depictions early in life. My favorite piece of evidence for children's picture understanding is a beautiful old study by Hochbert & Brooks (1962). They found that their own child, after being deprived of access to drawings and photos until the age of 19 months, nevertheless had very good recognition objects he knew from both kinds of images, the very first time he saw them.* M's generalization of "dada" to my photo thus might not be completely surprising, but it certainly supports the idea that the word was never dependent on me actually being there.

The second example, reported by my wife, is even more striking.  When I had stepped out of the house for a moment, M pointed to the bedroom door where I had been and said "dada" – as though she was searching for me. This kind of displacement – use of language to describe something that is absent  – is argued to be a critical design feature of language in a really nice, under-appreciated article by Hockett (1960). Some interesting experiments suggest that even toddlers can use language to learn about unseen events, but I don't know about systematic studies of the use of early words to express displaced meanings. M's use of "dada" to refer to my absence (or perhaps to question whether I was present but unseen) suggests that she already is able – in principle – to use language in this way.

More broadly, in watching these first steps into language I am stunned by the disconnect between comprehension and production. Production is difficult and laborious: M accomplishes something like "brown bear" or "dada" but then quickly forgets or loses interest in what she has learned.** But the core understanding of how language works seems much more mature than I ever would have imagined. For M, the places where she shows the most ability is in understanding language a signal of future action. When we say "diaper time" or "would you like something to eat?" she apparently takes these as signals to initiate the routine, and toddles over to the changing pad or dinner table. But when we're in the middle of the routine, saying "diaper" doesn't inspire her to point to her diaper.

Again and again I am left with the impression of a mind that quickly apprehends the basic framework assumptions of the physical and social world, even as carrying out the simplest actions using that knowledge remains extraordinarily difficult.


* Needless to say, this was an epic study to conduct. Drily, H&B write in their paper that “the constant vigilance and improvisation required of the parents proved to be a considerable chore from the start—further research of this kind should not be undertaken lightly.”

** On a behaviorist account of early language, M would never forget "dada" – I was so overjoyed that I probably offered more positive reinforcement than she could even appreciate.

(minor updates and typo fixes 7/29)

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