Center for Language Acquisition at the Pennsylvania State University

Plenary Lectures

Four plenary lectures were given:


David McNeill, University of Chicago

Notes on the Origin of Language: What Evolved, and How

Taking gesture into account, we see language as a dynamic system combining imagery and encoded categorial content during real-time utterances. This talk will focus on language origins, adopting the view that gestures are components of language, not accompaniments, ornaments or ‘add-ons’, but actually integral parts of it. The methodological approach this position suggests is to ask whether (and if so, how) a theory of language origin explains the dual semiotic system of imagery and conventional code. Contrary to widespread recent enthusiasm, the ‘gesture-first’ theory fails this test—in fact, fails it twice: it predicts what did not evolve and does not predict what did. An alternative, called ‘Mead's Loop’, will be described which explains how language was multimodal from the beginning. Mead's Loop provides a brain link between thought, language, and hand that creates the orchestration of vocal and manual movements by significances other than those of the actions themselves, a crucial step toward human language. George Herbert Mead wrote that, “[g]estures become significant symbols when they implicitly arouse in an individual making them the same response which they explicitly arouse in other individuals” (1974, p. 47). At a motor level, the Loop provides a way for significant imagery—that carried by gesture—to orchestrate motor control in Broca’s Area. What evolved, it says, was a new ability to self-respond to one’s own gestures; this is the Mead’s Loop ‘twist’, and it opened mirror neurons to the range of significances carried by gestures. All this took place in the speech areas of the brain and gestures thus became available as speech-orchestrating units. At a social level, Mead's Loop, with its twist, gives one’s own gestures the character of a social interaction (and current-day gestures are more likely with a social ‘other’ present than, say, talking privately into a tape recorder). Natural selection of Mead's Loop could have arisen whenever sensing oneself as a social object is advantageous—as when imparting information to infants, where it gives the adult the sense of being an instructor as opposed to being just a doer with an onlooker (the chimpanzee way). This locates a step (for there must have been many) in the origin of language in a childrearing scenario, and in early human’s unique family life in general. The locus of this natural selection would have been in those adults, mothers, who were better able to impart cultural information, because they had some awareness of their own gestures and hence inclined towards Mead's Loop.


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Anita Pomerantz, University at Albany

An Analysis of Two Practices in Which Patients Offer ‘Unlikely’ Explanations for Symptoms

Patients not only describe their symptoms during medical visits, they frequently present possible explanations for those symptoms. Although patients often display uncertainty about the explanations that they raise, they typically portray them as reasonable and at least somewhat likely possibilities. There are times, however, when patients raise possible explanations and yet cast them as unlikely or improbable. Two such practices are analyzed. The first practice involves patients’ raising and arguing against serious health conditions as explanations for their symptoms; the second practice involves patients’ raising and arguing against commonplace or benign conditions as explanations for their symptoms. The analysis includes a discussion of how the multiple constraints and concerns that operate in the medical consultation shape the discursive practices and how each practice functions.



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*Talbot J. Taylor, College of William and Mary

Linguistic Reflexivity and Lexical Acquisition

How is it possible for a sign or for any linguistic unit or event to mean, to refer to something, to be a proper name, to be true or false, to be a repetition of an earlier sign, and so on? These are clearly heavily loaded questions, because meaning, referring, being a name, being true, being a token of a linguistic type are all properties that the Western tradition has assumed to be universal to every language in every culture, in every period: indeed, to every possible language.

Naturally, foundational questions about these properties also have their corollaries in developmental inquiry, that is, in the study of the child’s acquisition of language. If, for instance, language is assumed to possess the kinds of properties that are commonly ascribed to it either because of the immanence of these properties in the signs themselves or because of what the mind naturally attributes to them, then scientific inquiry into the acquisition of language by children is automatically framed in quite specific terms.

On the other hand, the framing of developmental linguistic inquiry would be quite different if it were based instead on the hypothesis that many of the properties of language are reflexively constructed by means of a speech community’s metadiscursive practices. It is this latter hypothesis that frames the present paper’s discussion of two questions that continue to bedevil the study of lexical acquisition. How does a child map a word onto a specific meaning when there are, in principle, indefinitely many ways that the word could be understood? How do they learn to generalize that meaning beyond the single referent first encountered, to whole categories of objects, properties, and relations?




Carl Ratner, Humboldt Institute

Philosophical and Political Aspects of Social Science


This speaker will demonstrate the following: (1) Sociocultural phenomena are infused with philosophical principles and political features. (2) To accurately and comprehensively understand social science phenomena, it is vital to understand their philosophical and political aspects. (3) The theories and methodologies that study these phenomena are infused with (guided by) philosophical and political assumptions. (4) These assumptions determine the extent to which these theories and methodologies are accurate and comprehensive.

The speaker will provide examples of the ways in which philosophical and political issues are basic to social phenomena and to social science theories and methodologies. The examples include the nature of culture, agency, and language, and theories regarding them.



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