Interactionist Perspectives on "Late Talkers"

Yesterday's post reviewed nativist perspectives on why children with abnormally small vocabularies might not show a "shape bias" in their naming of novel nouns. Today's post focuses on how "interactionist" perspectives on language might account for this finding, while tomorrow's post will focus on the predictions motivated by connectionist theories.

In contrast to nativist accounts, interactionists emphasize the importance of social cognition to language development, and suggest that humans learn language largely because they differ from non-human primates in their attunement to social cues like reaching, looking, and pointing (Tomasello et al., 2003). For example, chimpanzees are unlikely to attend to social cues unless the stimulus is intrinsically rewarding (i.e., food) or unless there is competition from other chimpanzees. Even in this context, however, chimpanzees still appear incapable of more subtle social cognition, such as that involved in ToM, which has a relationship to language learning in humans (Slade and Ruffman, 2005).

From this perspective, interactionists might account for a lack of shape bias among late-talkers as resulting from deficits in skills related to social cognition. In this case, successful intervention techniques might involve reward conditioning for engaging in social dialogue, and specifically for following the social cues of adults. If this training was successful, children might initially show improvement on ToM tasks, followed by subsequent gains in vocabulary.

A more specific prediction is motivated by interactionists that stress the importance of “intent” in children’s naming habits. Specifically, they claim that the use of the shape bias is conditional on the objects having similar intended purposes (Diesendruck, Markson, & Bloom, 2003), and thus, implicitly also dependent on children’s inferential abilities. This account would predict that late-talkers have inferential deficits.

This hypothesis might predict that late-talkers would perform abnormally on tasks involving social inference, perhaps as measured by simple versions of the Child’s Apperception Test (i.e. CAT, in which subjects must tell a story about an ambiguous picture). According to this interactionist perspective, successful intervention might involve explicit training on “intentional cues,” focusing not only on gestures and facial expressions but also on object affordances. Similar to the interactionist perspective discussed above, this version would also predict that children show initial improvement on CAT or ToM tasks, followed by changes in vocabulary.

Diesendruck G, Markson L, & Bloom P. (2003). Children's reliance on creator's intent in extending names for artifacts. Psychol Sci. 2003 Mar;14(2):164-8.

Slade, L., & Ruffman, T. (2005). How language does (and does not) relate to theory of mind: A longitudinal study of syntax, semantics, working memory and false belief. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 1-26.

Tomasello M, Call J, & Hare B. (2003). Chimpanzees understand psychological states - the question is which ones and to what extent.


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