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Is embodiment all that we need? Insights from the acquisition of negation

Is embodiment all that we need? Insights from the acquisition of negation. Valentina Cuccio University of Palermo valentina.cuccio@unipa.it. The goal:. The aim of this paper is to present the hypothesis that speaking is a complex ability that arises in two different steps:

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Is embodiment all that we need? Insights from the acquisition of negation

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  1. Is embodiment all that we need? Insights from the acquisition of negation Valentina Cuccio University of Palermo valentina.cuccio@unipa.it

  2. The goal: The aim of this paper is to present the hypothesis that speaking is a complex ability that arises in two different steps: • The first step of language competence has a neural explanation grounded in embodied semantics and mental simulation (Gallese & Lakoff 2005). • The second step implies socio-cognitive skills like Theory of Mind. In order to reach the second level of language competence, symbolic communication and interaction with a cultural community are needed.

  3. This hypothesis will be tested by looking at the acquisition of linguistic negation.

  4. “No” is acquired very early on, being one of the first words in language acquisition.

  5. In first language learning three broad categories of negation consecutively arise (Dimroth 2010 for a review): • 1) rejection • 2) non-existence • 3) denial

  6. Rejection • According to many studies (Choi 1988; Pea 1980; Volterra 1972; Volterra and Antinucci 1979), rejection is the first category of negation to be acquired. • Children use “no” to express refusal of something existing in their present context. • However, we can find examples of rejection in human pre-linguistic gestures and even in animal behaviour. In fact, before the moment in which children start to produce the single word “no” to express rejection, they have already expressed rejection non-linguistically. • Rejection, according to Pea (1980) does not require abstract mental representations, while non-existence and denial do require them.

  7. Non-existence • At this point, children are able to signal the absence or disappearance of an expected referent in the context of speech or indicate something that violates their expectations, based on previous experience (for instance, malfunctioning toys). • Abstract mental representation is required because the negated object or person is no longer present in the speech event context.

  8. Denial • As L. Bloom (1970) argues, to deny, children must have the ability to discern between their own knowledge of the world and the knowledge of their listener. In order to deny a sentence, children have to manage with two propositions, one affirming and one negating the same predication; and they have to ascribe one of them to the person they are speaking to. • In real-life conversations we often deny presuppositions and implicatures of the interlocutor. • “To deny the truth of another person's statement entails the understanding that the other person may hold different beliefs, or that language is itself a representation of reality, not reality itself” (Tager-Flusberg1999: 328). Denial is usually acquired by the age of two and a half years.

  9. In this hypothesis, the first categories of negation, rejection and non-existence (the first step of language competence) and even the comprehension of the negated content of a denied sentence can be accounted for in a simulative paradigm. • The simulative paradigm, however, does not sufficiently explain denial (the second step of language competence). In denying we are not only comprehending a negated content by simulating it. We are also explicitly attributing the negated/simulated content to the interlocutor.

  10. Simulating negation • Recently many studies have been devoted to the understanding of simulation processes in the comprehension of negated sentences (for example Tettamanti et al. 2008; Kaup et al. 2006).

  11. The main aim of the Tettamanti et al. study was to test whether the impact of negation on neural activation is dependent on or independent of the semantic field of the negated content. The results seem to confirm the hypothesis that the impact of negation on neural activation does depend on the semantic field of the negated content.

  12. This results seem to be congruent with previous findings on the accessibility of information (Kaup and Zwaan). • The processing of negation enables a lower neural activation of the negated content in the brain, both of action related and abstract content (respectively in the left fronto-parieto-temporal and in the posterior cingulate cortex). • According to the authors “Negation is encoded by our brain in terms of a reduced activation of the areas representing the negated information”.

  13. For the sake of clarity it should be noted that Kaup and Zwaan (2007) proposed a two-step simulation hypothesis of negation. • According to the Kaup and Zwaan model, the comprehension of a negative sentence is realised firstly by means of a simulation of the negated content; soon afterwards a simulation of the actual state of affairs takes place. At this point, information about the negated content is less accessible, this finding is congruent with the Tettamanti et al. (2008) results.

  14. First remark: • The studies of simulative processes of negation show an overt bias that consists in considering negation mainly as descriptive negation, its function being only that of negating the conceptual content of the negated sentence. • However, there is a rich debate in Pragmatics on the so-called metalinguistic function of negation. Metalinguistic negation does not affect the semantic content of the sentence but can affect its morphology, its phonology or its presuppositions and implicatures.

  15. Examples of negation cancelling presuppositions and implicatures can easily be found in everyday conversations.

  16. First scenario:Andy, Barry and Carol Andy meets Barry A: I saw you at the restaurant yesterday. B: I did not move from my apartment. A: Sorry, I was pretty sure that you were the man I saw with your wife! After this conversation Barry goes home and says to his wife Carol: B: You were at the restaurant with another man yesterday! (Carol replies with a very classical answer) C: It isn’t what you think!

  17. Second scenario: The boss and the employee Characters: The boss of the company; his employee. In a big company there was a cash deficit. The boss addresses one of his employees with these words: Boss: You have bought a very expensive car lately John. John: I did not do anything that was out of my means.

  18. In all of these examples, negative sentences negate a presupposition or implicature of the interlocutor. • In the first case Barry is negating the presupposition of Andy that Barry was the man at the restaurant. Carol is negating the implicature of Barry that she was cheating on him. Finally, the employee is negating the implicature of his boss that he stole money.

  19. It is very likely that in understanding these negative sentences we start with a simulation. This is not questioned here. • However, simulating the actual or the negated content is not sufficient in order to understand these dialogues. The boss is not explicitly saying that the employee stole money. He is implicating this sentence. And the employee is not explicitly negating this implicature. His negative sentence is an implicit negation of the boss’s implicature. • Thus, simulation of the propositional content is only one step in the process of language production and comprehension. In addition to simulation, we need to introduce explicit inferential abilities.

  20. Definitions of meaning and semantics in the embodied language paradigm • The definition of meaning in the field of embodied semantics seems to be problematic. • Linguistic meaning is represented in the brain through a mental simulation realized in the same sensory-motor circuitries that enable actions.

  21. The problem with this account is that it considers semantics as a stable field (dictionary model). • Language does not seem to work as a rigid code. We can play with words, we can use irony, we can lie or we can simply be misunderstood. • Often, the so-called literal meaning is different from the inferred meaning. • Meaning, in real-life conversations, is constructed in every context of speech on the basis of the speakers, their background knowledge, their level of shared knowledge, their goals and of their physical context.

  22. Third scenario:Father and son • Characters: a boy coming home; his father. F: So? B: (smiling): It was fine. The dictionary model of semantics does not seem to work here. What kind of simulation is running here? Are they simulating the propositional content or the inferential content?

  23. Up to now, we have argued that explicit inferential abilities are needed in order to produce and comprehend denial and all the forms of metalinguistic negation. • The next question we are going to address will be: Is there any empirical evidence supporting this claim?

  24. We try to answer this question by looking at the acquisition of linguistic negation in autistic children. • Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder with three characteristic features: social impairments, communicative-linguistic impairments, repetitive and stereotyped behaviours (Tager-Flusberg, 1999). • At least the first two aspects of autism are usually explained by a ´Theory of mind’ deficit hypothesis. According to this account, autistic subjects have a specific deficit in understanding other people’s mental states.

  25. Studies on the comprehension and production of negative sentences in autistic language • Shapiro and Kapit (1978) • Tager-Flusberg et al. (1990) • Schindele, Lüdtke and Kaup (2008)

  26. The two-step account of language competence in ontogeny • Following the mirror system hypothesis advanced by Arbib and Rizzolatti for the phylogenesy of language (Arbib and Rizzolatti 1997; Rizzolatti and Arbib 1998), the proposal advanced in this two-stepaccount for language acquisition is that in ontogeny children have a language-ready brain that, based on mental simulation, implemented by the mirror neuron system, makes the start of the acquisition of language possible. • At this first step, the mirror neuron system provides us with the ability to approximately comprehend intensions, mainly motor intentions, and to start the process of language acquisition. • In fact, the mirror neuron system can explain, in terms of intention understanding, imitative learning and simulative understanding the so-called construction grammar model for language acquisition (Tomasello).

  27. At this point, when the child enters the linguistic game, it is language itself that affects our cognitive functions and even the brain. Language makes our socio-cognitive abilities more complex. In particular, a full language shared by a cultural community makes our mindreading ability much more complex. • The child acquires an explicit mindreading ability, Theory of Mind and he is now ready to enter the second step of language acquisition. In fact, the Theory of Mind allows children to produce and comprehend inferential and implicit linguistic communication.

  28. Conclusion • Summarizing the data discussed so far, negation can be considered as a good example to support this two-step model for language competence. • In fact, categories of linguistic negation have different levels of complexity with different cognitive requirements. Rejection and non-existence can be explained in a simulative account. Denial, instead, needs an inferential explanation.

  29. Empirical open questions: Empirical open questions concern: the simulation of inferntial meaning; the neural mechanisms on which Theory of Mind relies. Is still usefull the distinction between semantics and pragmatics?

  30. Thank you for your attention!

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