Dr Pamela Perniss begins ESRC-funded project in 2017
12 Jun 2017
Understanding how children acquire language is one of great challenges for the social sciences with critical implications for education and for intervention in atypically developing children. Vocabulary learning is a core part of language development and is characterised as a particularly hard problem: How do children know that the sounds people make with their mouths are ‘words’ and that they are names for objects, actions or properties?
The assumption that words are only arbitrarily linked to objects and actions in the world (i.e., there is nothing in the sound of ‘cat’ that brings to the mind’s eye what a cat looks like, how it moves etc) makes the task of learning words especially hard: how can the correct object be found in a visually cluttered world (when the object is one among many present), or worse, when the object is absent from the immediate environment?
Tackling these questions, The Role of Iconicity in Language Learning is a 3-year ESRC project, conducted by Dr Pamela Perniss at the University of Brighton together with Prof Gabriella Vigliocco (PI), Dr Liz Wonnacott and Dr Chloe Marshall at UCL. The total funding is £655,000, of which £250,000 is at Brighton with a Research Officer post. Dr Pamela Perniss is the lead on the corpus-based work (naturalistic and semi-naturalistic data) in strands 1 and 2 of the project.
Dr Pamela Perniss and colleagues on the project argue that language is, in addition to being indisputably arbitrary, also fundamentally iconic (i.e. maintaining transparent links between spoken form and meaning) and that arbitrariness and iconicity coexist to aid learning in different ways. In particular, iconicity would provide powerful cues to support learning, especially when communication concerns objects and events not visually present, by bringing some of their sensory-motor properties to the mind’s eye (e.g. when a caregiver elongates the vowel in "taaall” to refer to a very tall person).