Talk: The Ecological Account of Language Acquisition: exploring its theoretical and methodological implications

“Targets of acquisition are neither deterministic nor static” (Johnson & White, 2020, p. 3). How do children develop into users of conventional language in a dynamic and socially structured language environment?

Early language development is commonly construed in terms of the symbol-grounding problem and the mapping problem (cf. Harnad, 1990 for the symbol-grounding problem; see Monaghan et al., 2018 for a discussion). On this view, the question is how infants learn that speech sounds carry meaning and how they learn form-to-meaning-mappings under conditions of referential uncertainty (Quine, 1960).

Recent work from developmental psychology (Rączaszek-Leonardi et al., 2018) rejects this perspective, aiming at an ecologically valid account of language acquisition:
They argue that the grounding problem arises form the assumption that linguistic forms are “intrinsically symbolic (i.e., are conventional, arbitrary, and have formal-systemic properties […]” (Rączaszek-Leonardi et al., 2018, p. 40). Instead, on their view, linguistic forms are constraints, i. e., physical realizations, gaining symbolic properties from repeated functionality in dynamic interaction. The problem then is an ungrounding problem: “how do concrete physical events or objects, embedded causally in dynamical interactions, may ever become abstract and symbolic” (Rączaszek-Leonardi et al., 2018, p. 40)?

To make this question accessible for empirical investigation, analyses of the microstructure of social infrastructure are carried out using multimodal data from infant-caretaker interactions. The goal is to show how conventionalization, abstraction and systematicity drive the ungrounding of symbolic forms (Rączaszek-Leonardi et al., 2018, pp. 58–67).

Theoretical/methodological implications as well as possible applications will be discussed.

Harnad, S. (1990). The symbol grounding problem. Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena, 42(1–3), 335–46.
Johnson, E. K., & White, K. S. (2020). Developmental sociolinguistics: Children’s acquisition of language variation. WIREs Cognitive Science, 11(1), e1515.
Monaghan, P., Kalashnikova, M., & Mattock, K. (2018). Intrinsic and extrinsic cues to word learning. In G. Westermann & N. Mani (Eds.), Early Word Learning (pp. 30–43). Routledge.
Quine, W. V. O. (1960). Word and Object. MIT Press.
Rączaszek-Leonardi, J., Nomikou, I., Rohlfing, K. J., & Deacon, T. W. (2018). Language Development From an Ecological Perspective: Ecologically Valid Ways to Abstract Symbols. Ecological Psychology, 30(1), 39–73.