Prof. Gergely Csibra (Cognitive Development Centre, Budapest)
Thursday 23rd January, Psychology 127, 2.30-4pm
All human languages allow for making generic statements about kinds, which fosters the acquisition of generic knowledge by linguistic communication. I present recent findings that suggest that non-verbal ostensive communication may also induce the expectation of generic content already in pre-verbal infants. In particular, our studies demonstrate that, when the objects are deictically referred by a communicator, 9-month-old infants, like adults, tend to encode kind-relevant properties, like shape and colour, of the objects while ignoring their incidental properties, such as location and numerosity. These findings suggest that non-verbal demonstratives are expected to refer to the object kind, rather than to the particular objects present in the scene. In a further series of studies using electrophysiological measures we have found that as soon as infants start to learn words for objects, they assume that verbal labels refer to object kinds rather than to individuals or object features. Furthermore, our evidence suggests that seeing pictures of familiar objects activate the representation of the corresponding kind concepts in the infant brain only when the objects are presented in an ostensive-referential context. I propose that these phenomena reflect an expectation of genericity elicited by ostensive communication, and such a bias assists the learning of generic knowledge from others.