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Language without Pointing

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

In this short post I'd like to discuss cool things following the previous post in which we learned about joint attention through pointing, which is fundamental to language learning.


It is clear how we can get joint attention through pointing but how do we do it without pointing? Knowing how to do that opens the door for communicating thoughts beyond the physical vicinity we may be found in to communicate our inner worlds, and that's quite of a transition. It turns out we can mentally point at things to draw our conversation parter's attention. Mentally-pointing can be conducted through change of tone as we speak, or by stressing out where the listener attention should be, or by body language if we are visible to the conversation partner. Different types of text punctuation, and emojis can do that as well. I think though, that the less channels of information you have (visibility>audio>text) the harder it gets to effectively draw someones attention. It may require greater cognitive load as a result or more prior knowledge about the speaker in order to infer their intent (but here I deviated a bit).


As a child advances in their development of language skills, they start to point to places that may indicate the previous presence of an object in the pointed location and that is the beginning of abstracting concepts. A nice example could be an infant that would point to "daddy's chair" to ask his parent "where is daddy". The earlier a child points often the sooner they will start using language. They experience a gradual transition between gestures and speaking in which their parent often serves as the translator of the child's gestures to words. The parent helps the child undergo three phases:


1. Communicate with gestures about the visuospatial domain


2. Creating a mental category space that is communicated together with the visuospatial domain


3. Gradually transition to a one/two word phrases and beyond, and gradually communicating about the category space alone.


As the third stage kicks in new skills become more attainable such as cooperative plans, gossip, imaginary friends, etc.. This is where words start to take over pointing and words themselves become are employed for pointing. According to Gardenfors the process of creating joint referents is the advanced way for pointing. Notice that asking "do you see what I mean", "do you follow me" is evidence for past practices we used to have as children, or at least illustrating the visuospatial calling us to pay attention to our conversation parter.



Following someone's story is like tracing their footsteps

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