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Human infants' preparedness for relevance-guided learning through ostensive-referential communication

Final Report Summary - OSTREFCOM (Human infants' preparedness for relevance-guided learning through ostensive-referential communication)

This project aimed at determining the mechanisms that help human infants learn valuable cultural knowledge from verbal and nonverbal communication directed at them by adults. We have established that young infants pay special attention to the communicative signals (the so-called ‘ostensive signals’) that indicate that they are being addressed by someone. Their brain activation suggests that they treat these signals equivalently whether they come from visual (e.g. eye contact) or auditory (e.g. infant-directed intonation) modality. We have found that, upon receiving such signals, infants try to figure out what the adult is communicating about by following her directional signals, such as head turns, and by interpreting the words they hear. In fact, infants also ask questions from adults by pointing to objects they are interested in. We have demonstrated that well before producing their first words, babies understand a lot of the speech they hear, and they expect the meaning of new words to be general ideas, such as types of objects, or social roles that people play. This expectation is not restricted to verbal communication. We have found that both adults and infants think that when someone shows them an object, she is expressing something about not just that object but about that type of object, and that what she expresses extends beyond the actual situation. As a result, infants learn from these demonstrations even if they involve seemingly silly actions and even if the demonstration contradicts the knowledge they can gather outside communication. A specific application of these learning mechanisms is how infants collect information about what various tools are for. Infants learn such information quickly if the demonstration of tool use is addressed to them, and the knowledge they acquire this way is more stable than the one they learn just by observation. The way these perceptual and learning mechanisms are connected to each other in a system (dubbed as ‘natural pedagogy’) ensures that infants will get the most benefit from communicative teaching addressed to them.