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Preview: Shipwreck Survivor vs Lab Rat

\subsection{How do children acquire words?}

How do humans first come to communicate with words?

Two models:

  • shipwreck survivor
  • lab rat

shipwreck survivor:

‘children learn words through the exercise of reason’ (\citealp[p.\ 1103]{Bloom:2001ka}; see \citealp{Bloom:2000qz})

(Bloom 2001, p. 1103)

‘Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak.’

\citep[15--16, §32]{Wittgenstein:1953mm}

(Wittgenstein 1953, p. 15--16, §32)

Does the view Wittgenstein is attacking sound like a mere caricature? Bloom explicitly endorses it, noting that ‘Augustine’s proposal is no longer seen as the goofy idea that it once was’ \citep[p.\ 61]{Bloom:2000qz}.
Here is the view Wittgenstein himself seems to favour.
This view is quite widespread ...

‘[t]he child learns this language from the grown-ups by being trained to its use. I am using the word ‘trained’ in a way strictly analogous to that in which we talk of an animal being trained to do certain things. It is done by means of example, reward, punishment, and suchlike’

\citep[p.\ 77]{Wittgenstein:1972lj}

(Wittgenstein 1972, p. 77).

‘the child’s early learning of a verbal response depends on society's reinforcement of the response in association with the stimulations that merit the response’

(\citep[p.\ 82]{Quine:1960fe}; compare \citep[pp.\ 28--9]{Quine:1974rd})

(Quine 1960, p. 82)

‘A child learning to speak is learning habits and associations which are just as much determined by the environment as the habit of expecting dogs to bark and cocks to crow’

\citep[p.\ 71]{Russell:1921ww}

(Russell 1921, p. 71).

Both pictures miss social interaction. On one picture the infant is an outsider who might as well be observing those around her through a telescope. On the other picture the child is a blank to be shaped by those around her. There is no meaningful interaction between the infant and adults around her; or, if there is, it makes no difference to her development. But could there be a role for social interaction in learning the meanings of words?

social interaction

We can tell that both pictures are missing something important by noting the role of creativity in childrens' (and adults') uses of words.
Children acquiring language create their own words before they learn to use those of the adults around them.
‘Some children are so impatient that they coin their own demonstrative pronoun. For instance, at the age of about 12 months, Max would point to different objects and say “doh?,” some¬times with the intent that we do something with the objects, such as bring them to him, and sometimes just wanting us to appreciate their existence’
(\citealp[p.\ 122]{Bloom:2000qz}; see further \citealp{Clark:1981bi,Clark:1982hj}).
Even where children have mastered a lexical convention, they will readily violate it in their own utterances in order to get a point across.
‘From the time they first use words until they are about two or two-and-a-half, children noticeably and systematically overextend words. For example, one child used the word “apple” to refer to balls of soap, a rubber-ball, a ball-lamp, a tomato, cherries, peaches, strawberries, an orange, a pear, an onion, and round biscuits’
\citep[p.\ 35]{Clark:1993bv}

children create and creatively adapt words before (and after) learning those of the adults around them

INVESTIGATOR: what is that called?

SHEM: dat's uh vam.


SHEM: yeah.

INVESTIGATOR: why is it called a vam?

SHE: it vams all duh room ups all the water up ...

source: Eve Clark's CHILDES data

(Clark 1982; MacWhinney 2000)

Children with no experience of others' languages can create their own languages.
We know this from studies of profoundly deaf children brought up in purely oral environments and therefore without experience of language (Goldin-Meadow 2003; Kegl, Senghas and Coppola 1999; Senghas and Coppola 2001).
Individually or in groups these children invent their own signed languages.
These languages are not as rich as those of children with experience of other people's languages but they have all of the essential features of language including lexicons and syntax (Goldin-Meadow 2002, 2003).
The children invent gesture forms for words which they use with the same meanings in different contexts, they adopt standard orderings for combining words into sentences, and they use sentences in constructing narratives about past, present, future and hypothetical events. Thus one profoundly deaf child, Qing, describes how swordfish can poke a person so that she dies, and how they have long, straight noses and can swim (Goldin-Meadow 2003: 170).

Children with no experience of others' languages can create their own languages.

I started this section by contrasting two views on lexical acquisition, the shipwreck survivor view and the lab rat view.
We've seen that neither is the whole truth because children learn in part through a process of creation.
Why is this interesting?
The creative activity is a rational, goal-directed activity; so it's not merely training.
The creative activity does not obviously involve mapping words onto concepts, or even having the concepts.
(After all, the child might try out a pattern of use that others see as appropriate for a concept before the child actually has that concept.)
And this creativity with words involves social interaction: the aim is coordination between two or more individuals.

Language acquisition is neither merely a matter of training, nor merely a matter of reasoning about the meanings of words. Rather, it involves social interaction from the first utterances of words.

How do humans first come to communicate with words?


  1. the lab rat
  2. why the lab rat view is wrong
  3. the shipwreck survivor
  4. why the shipwreck survivor is wrong
  5. a problem
  6. The problem is that we don't have a good answer to our question, How do humans first come to communicate with words?