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Taking turns: The ‘missing’ link in language evolution?

Project description

Turn-taking in human and animal communication

The evolution of language still remains a mystery. Recently, scholars suggested that turn-taking may bridge the gap between human and animal communication. However, lack of comparative data and methodological shortcomings hamper an in-depth understanding of similarities and differences in human and animal turn-taking. The EU-funded TURNTAKING project will investigate turn-taking production and comprehension in four primate model systems: human children, chimpanzees (one of humans' closest living relatives), geladas (an Old World monkey species) and common marmosets ( a New World monkey species). It will combine paradigms and measures from conversational analysis and primatology to test whether turn-taking is uniquely human, evolved independently, or represents an ancient mechanism in the primate lineage.


Language — the most distinctive human trait — remains a ‘mystery’1 or even a ‘problem’2 for evolutionary theory. It is underpinned by cooperative turn-taking3, which has been implicated with highly sophisticated cognitive skills such as mindreading4. Some have claimed that this turn-taking system is uniquely human5,6, but others argue that it provides the evolutionary ‘missing link’ between animal and human communication7. This debate has been constrained by a lack of comparative data, methodological confounds that often prevent meaningful comparisons, and a lack of information on key components of social relationships8,9 that might strongly impact upon turn-taking propensities.
Objectives. TURNTAKING will quantify turn-taking production and comprehension in human children, chimpanzees, and two distantly related species — geladas and common marmosets. It will apply a powerful combination of systematic behavioral observations, eye-tracking paradigms, and established measures from Conversational Analysis3,10 and Primatology9 that allow the same type of data to be collected and analyzed in directly comparable ways across species. This will provide the first rigorous test of whether cooperative turn-taking is uniquely human, ancestral in the primate lineage, or evolved independently in different species. TURNTAKING will identify which hallmarks of human turn-taking are shared across different primate species, and which key components of relationship quality8,9 act upon turn-taking skills.
Outcomes. This project will found the field of comparative turn-taking, and provide pioneering insights into the behavioral flexibility underlying different turn-taking systems. It will go beyond the state of the art by exposing whether cooperative turn-taking is the evolutionary ‘missing link’ between our species and our inarticulate primate cousins, and whether pro-social behaviors drove its emergence.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 999 795,00
49074 Osnabrueck

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Niedersachsen Weser-Ems Osnabrück, Kreisfreie Stadt
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 999 795,00

Beneficiaries (1)