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Imitation vs association in child-adult and child-child interaction
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Linguistics, General Linguistics.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-7095-0525
2013 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

The role of imitation in language development is debated and unclear (e.g., Meltzoff, 2011; Heyes, 2001; Paulus, 2012) in part because of the difficulty to define imitation. Is it when A copies an act or an utterance from B within a specific time frame, or is it when the goal of B is captured and executed by A, regardless of the means to reach the goal? Further, must A be aware that s/he imitated B, or should low-level cognitive mechanisms be regarded as imitation as well?

The aim of the present study was to identify and describe imitative behaviors in young children as they appear in a longitudinal material of child-child and child-adult interaction. “Imitation” was defined as: any verbal/vocal/nonverbal act that i) occurs after an identical such act; ii) semantically and/or pragmatically repeats an earlier verbal/vocal/nonverbal act. An example of the first kind would be a child, A, clapping his hands against his head hollering “hallo” and another nearby child, B, starts doing the same while watching A. The second kind could be illustrated with a child, C, saying to another mother than his own “mommy there is no need to talk, you can just go straight away” to which his own mother says “I recognize that comment, that’s what I say to grandma”. While the first example appears to be a direct, situated, practice where instant imitation is taking place, the second is a sequence where a more or less formulaic verbalization is copied from some previous occasion/s and delivered in a situation where it appears to fit, an associated imitation.

In the talk, different imitative behavioral will be illustrated and related to instant vs associated contextual aspects. It will be argued that both behaviors build on common mechanisms of learning (Schöner, 2009; Smith & Katz, 1996), that they appear in parallel throughout the ages studied (see below), but that they differ in cognitive – although not necessarily social – complexity, as well as in their part in language development and socialization routines.

Data consists of 22 hours of video recordings of 5 Swedish families with in all 11 children. The children are in the ages 0;9 to 5;10 years old and were recorded during a period of 2 ½ years.  The recordings were done in a home environment together with siblings and parents.


Gergely, G. & Csibra, G. (2003). Teleological reasoning in infancy: The naïve theory of rational action. Trends in

Cognitive Sciences, 7, 287-292.

Heyes, C. (2001). Causes and consequences of imitation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5, 253-261.

Meltzoff, A.N. (2011). Social cogntion and the origin of imitation, empathy, and theory of mind. In U.

Goswami (Ed.), Blackwell handbook of childhood cognitive development (2nd ed., pp. 49-75), Malden: Wiley.

Paulus, M. (2012). Is it rational to assume that infants imitate rationally? A theoretical analysis and

  critique. Human Development, 55, 107-121.

Shöner, G. (2009). Development as Change of System Dynamics: Stability, Instability, and Emergence. In:

 Toward a unified theory of development. Connectionism and dynamic systems theory re-considered, John P. Spencer, Michael S. C. Thomas, & James L. McClelland (Eds.), Oxford University Press, pp.25-50.

Smith, L. B. & Katz, D. B. (1996). Activity-dependent Processes in Perceptual and Cognitive Development. In:

Perceptual and Cognitive Development, Rochel Gelman & Terry Kiz-Fong Au (Eds.), Academic Press: Elsevier, pp. 413-445

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
imitation, language development, interaction
National Category
Research subject
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-99456OAI: diva2:687004
International Pragmatics Conference, New Delhi, India, 13-18 September 2013
Available from: 2014-01-13 Created: 2014-01-13 Last updated: 2014-04-29Bibliographically approved

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