Category Archives: Human Development

Language, Feelings, and the Construal of Insects: Differences between French and English

Papillon

Image via Wikipedia

Since childhood I have thought that butterflies were good insects and that moths were bad insects.  After all, popular thought is that moths are creatures of destruction (hence the need for mothballs), even though this is not exactly the case.  Nevertheless, the frame for conceptualizing moths is a negative frame in English.

Contrast the English perspective with the French construal: butterfly is papillon, moth is papillon de nuit, or, night’s butterfly.  The negative construal is minimized by the fact that they are construed as being of a similar type.  In French, moth can be seen as a lexical subcategory of butterfly.

This is interesting because it shows how a folk-classification system affects the construal; from a cladistic standpoint Lepidoptera cannot be broken into a subgroup that distinguishes between moth and butterfly because moths and butterflies belong to the same monophyletic group with butterflies belonging to moths, and not the other way around as English speakers might hope.  By using a similar form for both creatures French is closer to the phylogenetic reality in its classification schema, but it would be closer if moth was papillon and butterfly were papillon de jour since the basic level papillon would then reflect the moth as the basic level creature.

The way we talk about something governs how we think about it.  French children probably have less disgust for moths than I did, simply because poetically a moth is a butterfly of the night, and not a creature of destruction.

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Schematic Construals in Favor of Ecological Transportation

If you say the admittedly odd sentence “The baby feeds on mother’s milk.” it accesses a parasitic construal for the act of eating.  Pardon any offense this might cause you; I promise to redeem myself.  I am not saying that babies are parasites, but that the transfer involved could be construed as parasitic at this stage (depending on your nature/nurture views).  Please hang on for a few more sentences.

If you replace the lexical items with items from the same grammatical categories you could arrive at this sentence: “The car runs on gasoline”; this construal is merely consumptive.  All that has been done is replace a subject noun (baby) for another subject noun (car), a verb phrase (feeds on) for another similar verb phrase (runs on), and finally, a noun (mother’s milk) for an another noun (gasoline).

The innocent and non-parasitic behavior of the car in the second example sentence results from the fact that the source of the consumed material is absent from the semantics of the sentence.  Some would argue that it is implied.

So far we have a baby that acts parasitically toward its mother in order to consume a substance in order to operate, and a car that acts consumptively toward a substance in order to operate.

I want to argue that the car is actually parasitic depending on how your worldview construes the relationship between gasoline and its originating source: fossil fuel that comes from within the earth.  A reading of the earth as a mother (which many mythological systems do) would render the car’s unidirectional consumption of fuel a parasitic consumption of a resource from the earth.  If you construe the concept CAR in this parasitic way and realize that it is markedly different from a relationship between a child and a mother (the child later benefits the mother, they have a loving bond, they provide things for each other – exculpating the child from the parasitic framing), it seems reasonable to begin to look for ways to mitigate the parasitic nature of the car.  While some of the emissions from a car may provide positive feedback into the system our earth belongs to, by and large the car does nothing good for the earth, and truly embodies the role of parasite.

Something should change.

Because transferral of energy always entails a forward chain of consumption, it cannot be the consumption model that needs to change; it must be the parasitic nature.

One alternative is an epiphytic consumption, something like a solar car.  (At this point you probably see that this is not an article about babies or about cars, but rather construal and schematization).  Whether or not solar cars are a reality, that model would satisfy the need to reduce the parasitic nature of gasoline-run cars on the limited resources of a mother earth.

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Primitive Modals in Child Language (Hafta, Wanna, Gonna) As Functionally Equivalent to Auxiliary Modals

Modals represent a perspective of force in relation to the participatory elements of a construction.  In fact, they represent an encoding of force in the relation between subject, verb, and object.

Children acquire modals by way of constructions that employ notions of speaker attitudes like intention, volition, and compulsion (245, Tomasello: 2003), and the constructions that they use are form-meaning pairings of these attitudes to a class of non-modal verbs including: want, have, need, among others.  Through use of these constructions, children begin to use reduced forms to communicate their understanding of internal volition (wanna), external compulsion (hafta), internal compulsion (needta) where the verb is coupled with a reduced form of “to” (indicating direction toward) (246, Tomasello: 2003).

These quasi-modal constructions are aligned functionally with auxiliary modals which direct degrees of compulsion and force of purpose.  This is seen in the deontic modal function of hafta which equates with must (Tomasello, 262).  In a way, these can both be understood to represent a requirement on the part of the grammatical subject.

 

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How Children’s Overgeneralizations in Construction Use Informs Second Language Acquisition and the Negotiation of Meaning

The acquisition of abstract grammatical constructions represents the maturation of a child’s linguistic productivity.  This productivity means that a child can take constructions that have already been learned and extend the application of the construction by using different words.

One way to identify if the child has utilized a new construction in a productive way is to look for overgeneralizations in the application of the construction.  For instance, things that sound like mistakes in a child’s speech might actually represent the analogical extension of a learned construction into new lexical territory to attempt to communicate something that the child understands, but which is outside of the acquired bank of constructions.  Children sometimes use intransitive verbs in a transitive construction.  While this overgeneralization of the transitive construction is ungrammatical, it does represent an attempt at productive use of learned lexical concepts in learned constructions.  Adults encountering overgeneralizations may be able to determine what the child is attempting to communicate as the actual utterance represents an encoding of a concept with the construction as the foundation of meaning with the intransitive verb as the domain of meaning.  “He falled me down” (Bowerman 1982, cited in Tomasello 2003) is an attested case which indicates that the child has not acquired the appropriate transitive verb to describe the situation of being knocked over, even though the child has acquired the transitive construction.

This is a strategy of innovation in conversation, and may have insight for second language acquisition; when a construction for a particular concept is known, but the lexical particulars are unknown, adapting lexical particulars that account for the general concept and using them in a known construction permits the fielding of the ill-formed utterance and enabling the negotiation of meaning to take place.

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Intention Directing, Self-Reporting, and the Transitive Constructions in Early Childhood Grammar (preschool, 2-5 years old)

Group of children in a primary school in Paris

Image via Wikipedia

Since constructions are learned through usage, constructions are accumulated as individual entities that begin to form collections and these collections of constructions begin to exhibit type frequency.  I think that this type frequency represents an aspect of the nature of child conceptualization, and indeed, it enables the communication of conceptualization in relational behavior from early ages.  This post explores a little about my extension of Tomasello’s analysis of the abstract transitive construction from his book Constructing a Language.

Tomasello divides a list of verbs used in the transitive constructions into four categories: Having Objects, Moving or Transforming Objects, Acting on Objects, and Psychological Activities (150, Tomasello: 2003).  These are not productive constructions until around 3,5; at which point children begin to use the transitive construction with verbs outside of the list presented by Tomasello.  Children use the verbs to indicate Agent and Patient roles in the [Trans-SUBJ Trans-VERB Trans-OBJ] transitive construction.  Looking through the list of verbs presented in Tomasello’s text it is easy to see that children have subjective conceptualizations and are able to begin articulating these ideas.  Verbs like: mean, know, like, help, need, and want represent a complex internal awareness of the interface between the physical/objective world and the mental/subjective world.  This understanding of the descriptive functions of the transitive construction enable the child to foray into relational transactions that involve intention-directing and launch the child into participation in the social world with the means to assert their identity as communicative entities in conversation.  These constructions allow self-reporting of internal states and an articulation of desire that transcends the physical environment.  The child can now make declarations, but also utter imperatives regarding subjective concepts to effect changes in the concrete world.

Interestingly, the early abstract transitive constructions allow the child to place varying degrees of focus on the elements used in the construction.  This is a salience-determining skill that allows the child to manipulate meaning in relation to the Agent and Patient roles, which may be a precursor to learning other constructions like the Passive construction.  Additionally, the emergence of this ability may represent the manifestation of figure-ground distinctions in early child grammar.

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Foundational Cognitive Skills that Babies Need in Language Development

Reading on a Friday night

Image by mr brown via Flickr

As mentioned (yesterday’s post) three skills emerge from this acceptance of the triadic perspective:

1) Joint Attention Frame; 2)Intention Reading; and 3) Cultural Learning (Pattern Finding).  Joint Attention is the ability to coordinate attention with another individual on a third entity.  These third entities move from strictly concrete entities to more abstract entities as time goes by.  Without the ability to have a joint attention frame the transfer of knowledge would be impossible and the ability to converse with others in a meaningful way is equally impossible.  The process of intention reading is critical to understanding how others can have their behaviors influenced and likewise how the self can be influenced by the intentions of others.  Although not explicitly stated in Tomasello’s 2003 text, this particular cognitive skill would seem to be the foundation of basic relational strategies like the establishment of trust and credibility.  The final skill is pattern finding which enables cultural learning as the infant observes behavioral, intentional, and relational patterns in the contextual cultural community.  The child develops a sense for how things are done by intentional agents as the child attends to the patterns demonstrated through the everyday lives of those intentional agents with whom the child relates.

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Baby Behaviors Around 9-12 Months Enable “Conversation”

Joint Attention

Image by jeanbaptisteparis via Flickr

Infants move from a strictly dyadic sort of attentional phenomena to a triadic behavioral attention at around 9-12 months of age.  This opens the world for infants to allow them to consider other people as intentional agents with whom it is possible to interact.  This provides a platform for the infants to begin engaging in a relational way as a precursor to conversation including new ways of referencing the world around them and new ways of coordinating attention of the outside intentional agents.  Without this development into the capacity for accessing a triadic perspective children would be unable to operate in a joint attention frame, would be unable to read intention, and would not maximize cultural learning – all of which depend on recognizing the other-than-self as self-motivated.

I added this picture because it represents Joint Attention…now, substitute the three adults for an adult and an infant – this represents the ability to focus in a joint attention frame so as to develop a sense of common ground.  Stay tuned…more to come.

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