Babies likelier to mimic 'strange' behaviour when accompanied by language
A new Northwestern University study has shed light on how language helps infants to understand the intentions of others.
As the babies watched intently, an experimenter produced an unusual behaviour--she used her forehead to turn on a light. But how did babies interpret this behaviour? Did they see it as an intentional act, as something worthy of imitating? Or did they see it as a fluke? To answer this question, the experimenter gave 14-month-old infants an opportunity to play with the light themselves.
The results, based on two experiments, showed that introducing a novel word for the impending novel event had a powerful effect on the infants' tendency to imitate the behaviour. Infants were more likely to imitate behaviour, however unconventional, if it had been named, than if it remained unnamed, the study found.
When the experimenter announced her unusual behaviour ("I'm going to blick the light"), infants imitated her. But when she did not provide a name, they did not follow suit.
This revealed that infants as young as 14 months of age coordinate their insights about human behaviour and their intuitions about human language in the service of discovering which behaviours, observed in others, are ones to imitate.
"This work shows, for the first time, that even for infants who have only just begun to 'crack the language code,' language promotes culturally-shared knowledge and actions - naturally, generatively and apparently effortlessly," said Sandra R. Waxman, co-author of the study and the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology at Northwestern.
"This is the first demonstration of how infants' keen observational skills, when augmented by human language, heighten their acuity for 'reading' the underlying intentions of their 'tutors' (adults) and foster infants' imitation of adults' actions," she stated.
Waxman said absent language and its power in conveying meaning, infants don't imitate these "strange" actions.
"This means that human language provides infants with a powerful key: it unlocks for them a broader world of social intentions," Waxman said.