What do building pyramids, going to the moon, paddling in a canoe for two or dancing a waltz have in common? All these actions are the result of a common objective between several partners and lead to a feeling of reciprocal obligation, called “joint commitment”. This ability to cooperate is universal in humans and in certain species of animals, such as the great apes.
However, humans seem to have a unique predisposition and strong desire for social interaction that may be one of the components of language emergence, according to the study authors. How do our social interactions differ from other species? And why? To answer these questions, an international team analyzed the interactions of 31 children aged 2 to 4 in four preschools in the United States (10 hours per child). “There have been few quantitative analyzes of the spontaneous social interactions of 2- and 4-year-old children interacting with their peers, despite this being a critical age for the development of children’s socio-cognitive abilities. And those that exist are not based on extensive video recordings following individual children over several days or simply do not allow easy comparison with the social interactions of great apes,” adds Federico Rossano, first author of the study and assistant professor at University of California, San Diego They then compared their results with similar interactions in adults and great apes
Multiplication of social partners
The researchers analyzed the environmental factors (number of partners, types of activities, etc.) surrounding the children. They found that children have more frequent (an average of 13 separate social interactions per hour) and shorter (an average of 28 seconds) social interactions with their peers than great apes in comparable studies. Adrian Bangerter, co-author of the study and professor at the University of Neuchâtel explains why: “By being exposed to many partners, children quickly learn the need to coordinate with each other.” The numbers confirm this rapid learning: 4-year-olds already participate in cooperative social interactions more often than 2-year-olds and fight less than 2-year-olds. “Learning to coordinate with others and communicate to engage in joint activities goes hand in hand with learning to minimize conflict,” adds Rossano.
Social interactions are usually marked by an entry phase and an exit phase (when one starts a conversation with eye contact and a “hello” and then signals that it ends by repeating “okay, okay ” or with a “goodbye”). These signals are also present in 90% of social engagements in bonobos and 69% in chimpanzees. It seems that young children only use these signals 66-69% of the time, less frequently than bonobos and adults. “On the one hand, it could be due to the appreciation that they will again interact with the same children throughout the day, like two passengers sitting next to each other on a plane starting and stopping quick conversations throughout a flight without using greetings each time they resume On the other hand, this may reflect that not all social interactions are based on a shared commitment to one another , which is to say that sometimes young children can bulldoze their way through and assume that other children will just adapt to them rather than coordinate,” says Rossano. More empirical research will be needed to confirm these behaviors, but this study is a first step in understanding the role of joint engagement in human social interaction and its impact on language evolution.
Cooperation among Swiss children
A similar study is currently being carried out within the framework of the NCCR Evolving Language, a Swiss research center which aims to unravel the biological foundations of language, its evolutionary past and the challenges imposed by new technologies. A team including the co-authors from the University of Neuchâtel works with the extracurricular reception structures of Neuchâtel and aims to understand the development of joint action in children by observing how their use of so-called contrarian words (uh, okay) changes over time when they play a LEGO® cooperative game. Adrian Bangerter explains why these terms are important to analyze: “We use ‘small’ words like okay, uh-huh, yeah, or just all the time to synchronize our behavior with our partners. Yet so little is known about things about how young children acquire their use.”
Social interactions facilitated the evolution of language
The article was published as part of a special issue (https://evolvinglanguage.ch/special-issue-on-social-interaction/) which focuses on the “Interaction Engine” hypothesis. This hypothesis posits that social abilities and motivations in humans have been determining factors in the evolution of human language, the origins of which remain unknown. In a series of 14 papers edited by Raphaela Heesen of Durham University and Marlen Fröhlich of Tübingen University, researchers investigate the socio-cognitive abilities that paved the way for the emergence of language by offering a multidisciplinary approach and comparative. The NCCR Evolving Language is part of this special issue with seven of its researchers co-authoring 4 papers.
Source of the story:
Material provided by PRN Evolving Language (National Research Center). Original written by Emilie Wyss. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.