25 April 2007

Language and Contextual Framing

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:18 pm

Invoking language as an evolutionary cause of human cognition is like invoking money as an evolutionary cause of economic activity… Just as money is a symbolically embodied social institution that arose historically from previously existing social-communicative activities.

Yesterday’s post discussed Tomasello’s “referential triangle” of infant and adult jointly attending to objects in the world. It is on this social formation that the child learns to use language. Language is a social act, where participants in the referential triangle invoke socially shared symbols for construing phenomena that are the object of joint attention. In order to use language effectively, the child must not only be able to manipulate the linguistic symbols effectively. She must also be able to see herself from the adult’s perspective in joint attentional scene in which language is being used.

In learning by imitating an adult, the child effectively substitutes herself for the adult. But when the adult uses a new word in reference to an object, imitation doesn’t work. That’s because the adult uses the word to direct the child’s attention toward some aspect of the world. If the child imitates the adult’s language use, she ends up speaking the new word to herself. What’s needed is “role-reversal imitation”: the child must direct the word toward the adult in the same way the adult directed the word toward the child. Besides substituting herself for the adult in using the word, the child must also substitute the adult for herself as the target of the intentional act of speaking.

The joint attentional scene is the child’s learning laboratory for acquiring language. Children who spend more time with their mothers in joint attentional activities between 12 and 18 months of age have larger vocabularies at 18 months. Vocabulary growth is even stronger if the mother describes in language what the child is already attending to rather than using words to redirect the child’s attention. This maternal tracking of the child’s activities has scaffolding value in very early language acquisition, but it fades in importance as the child becomes more adept at determining communicative intentions in more ambiguous and varied learning contexts. Children quickly learn to use words appropriate to the contextual frame in which the conversation is embedded; e.g., by calling the same piece of real estate the shore or the coast or the beach; or to refer to a particular object as wet or blue or mine. A child can overlay a given scene with any number of alternative contextual frames, choosing language accordingly.

The point is not just that linguistic symbols provide handy tags for human concepts or even that they influence or determine the shape of those concepts, though they do both of these things. The point is that the intersubjectivity of human linguistic symbols — and their perspectival as one offshoot of this intersubjectivity — means that linguistic symbols do not represent the world more or less directly, in the manner of perceptual or sensory-motor representations, but rather are used by people to induce others to construe certain conceptual/perceptual situations — to attend to them — in one way rather than another. The users of linguistic symbols are thus implicitly aware that any given experiential scene may be construed from many different perspectives simultaneously, and this breaks these symbols away from the sensory-motor world of objects in space, and puts them instead into the realm of the human ability to view the world in whatever way is convenient for the communicative purpose at hand.

Tomasello’s empirical evidence strongly suggests that joint orienting of interpretive horizons isn’t just a hermeneutical device for bridging cultural gaps in understanding one another. Joint orientation is the foundational context for infants’ language acquisition. Language users don’t just see the world from a single perspective; they can frame the same situation in many different ways, depending on conversational context. This capacity for contextual flexibility, combined with the ability to take the other’s perspective in the joint attentional scene, are the skills necessary for learning to understand each other in conversation. These are skills we all acquired in early childhood when we were first learning to use language. Consequently there’s hope that the adult therapeutic client can draw on these basic skills in becoming a more effective interpreter of others’ behaviors and intentions — as well as his own.



  1. It does make me wonder then how at some point the words come to mean something different for us individually? That is, if developmentally it is all about decontextualizing language from specific situations, when do the words lock down again so that we use them to describe very precise, even idiosycratic, meanings later? And when another uses those same words in another context, we apply our own meanings to them? It is like we become sensitized emotionally or socially to some words.

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by bluevicar — 28 April 2007 @ 2:34 pm

  2. It’s a good question. We learn word meanings in joint attentional context rather than out of a dictionary. So we probably converge on meanings through multiple interactions and varied contexts in which the word is used. So you could imagine that people might arrive at different understandings of words based on the different experiences they had with the word.

    It’s been argued by the postmodernists that emphasis on precise word definition is an artifact of modernism’s attempt to reduce everything to measurable quanta. That natural usage of language is more varied, more culture-bound, with fuzzier boundaries, and where words are defined not individually but in context of all the other words in the language.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 April 2007 @ 5:27 pm

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