Sticking the tongue out: Early imitation in infants

Famous picture of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue.
Albert Einstein sticking out the tongue to a neonate in an attempt to test their imitation of tongue protrusion.

The nativism-empiricism debate haunts the fields of language acquisition and evolution on more than just one level. How much of children’s social and cognitive abilities have to be present at birth, what is acquired through experience, and therefore malleable? Classically, this debate resolves around the poverty of stimulus. How much does a child have to take for granted in her environment, how much can she learn from the input?

Research into imitation has its own version of the poverty of stimulus, the correspondence problem. The correspondence problem can be summed up as follows: when you are imitating someone, you need to know which parts of your body map onto the body of the person you’re trying to imitate. If they wiggle their finger, you can establish correspondence by noticing that your hand looks similar to theirs, and that you can do the same movement with it, too. But this is much trickier with parts of your body that are out of your sight. If you want to imitate someone sticking their tongue out, you first have to realise that you have a tongue, too, and how you can move it in such a way that it matches your partner’s movements.

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Referential labelling in Diana Monkeys Ok, so I was going to write an essay for my Origins of Language module on this but then got distracted by syntax (again) so I thought I’d put my thoughts in a blog post just so they don’t go to waste.

Diana monkeys, like vervet monkeys, use alarm calls to communicate the presence of a predator to other monkeys.

They produce (and respond to) different alarm calls corresponding to how close the predator is, whether the predator is above or below them and whether the predator is a leopard or an eagle.  They respond instantly regardless of how imminent an attack is.

In this post I will explore some of the evidence relating to how sophisticated the Diana monkey’s understanding of the call’s meaning is and also the mental mechanisms relating to the call’s production.

Zuberbühler (2000a) discusses some types of species which have alarm calls but instead of each alarm call representing a different predator, each alarm call represents a different level (or types) of danger. The aim of the Zuberbühler paper then, was to set out if this was the case for Diana monkeys or if they really did have referential ‘labels’ for different predators.

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