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.
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International Pragmatics Conference, New Delhi, India, 13-18 September 2013