LC3bA5 The Development of Pointing

The Development of Indicative Pointing:
details from an infant case study

Robert W. Lawler, Visiting Professor,
Archives Jean Piaget and Faculty of Psychology
University of Geneva, Switzerland

dedicated to the memory of Mme. Professeur H. Sinclair*

In a (1978) discussion of some of Chomsky’s claims (1975), Jerome Bruner suggested that if there is an example in the development of sensori-motor behavior that is similar to the genetically programmed emergence of new capabilities in a mental Language Acquisition Device, that example is the emergence of “the pure point” in the repertoire of infant gestures. George Miller, in “Language and Speech,” urges us to take pointing very seriously (p. 113):

“Children’s first words are tied to gestures. Perhaps the first gesture children understand is direction of gaze; they look in the direction their mother is looking…. Pointing with the eyes leads to pointing with the arm; pointing then differentiates into a “look at” gesture and a more insistent “give me ” gesture that adds grasping movements ( and sometimes whining) to the basic directional sign. These gestures perform the same acts of asserting and requesting that are later performed with language and are naturally thought of as precursors to language.”

These positions suggest analyzing gestural precursors for insights about language learning. Here we look at the course of development of pointing with the index finger (“the pure point”) to indicate an object referred to by the infant.

I created a long developmental case study corpus, beginning at the infant’s 18th week and proceeding with weekly videotaped recording of her activities for six years. The first three years of the corpus (“Three Years of Learning”) includes written notes as well as videotaped activities. The written materials include more than 750 “vignettes.” Most of these, based on my observations and ideas, include descriptions of the child’s behavior and an appreciation of the theoretical relevance of the observations or their interrelations. The vignettes also includes simpler notes written by the child’s mother. The catalog and digital transcription of these vignettes is complete. The materials are ordered by serial day date in the child’s life and indicate the areas of development on which the vignettes bear. (Language, Social Interactions, Sensori-motor and Cognitive Development, and others). Approximately 600 of these vignettes focus on the child’s language use.

The three year corpus includes more than 130 half hour videotapes. The general themes are language learning, play with objects, and social interaction. There are
two foci in the sets of recorded segments. The first is a continuing series about the child’s developing object knowledge; it is intended as a calibrating spine of the study. The second set of recorded segments draws inspiration from what the child’s mother or I could notice as most potentially fecund in the her behavior. Some observed incidents are striking in themselves. Other observations were driven by quasi-regular reflection, focused on theoretical concerns, such as the interplay of language production and other dimensions of development.

The method used the observe the development of the pure point is as follows:
1. Collect all references to “pointing” in the written material and review them.
2. Establish that time when the infant uses the pure point to indicate an object, based on text references and a review of videotapes made during the same period (primarily in the fourth quarter of the infants first year).
3. Work backwards exhaustively through the videotape corpus reviewing and documenting situations where pointing occurred and situations where it did not occur but would have been expected of the infant when more developed.
4. Describe the course of development and draw inferences and implications.

The “pure point” does NOT emerge suddenly. There is a gradual evolution of indicative pointing from non-gestural indications of wanting an object through variations of pointing where the digit configuration is influenced by preceding activities (e.g. stuffing food back into the mouth with various numbers of fingers) and other related uses of digits (e.g. two fingers, extended and joined, used as a probe and object-poker at the extreme of the infant’s reach). The development of the pure point is also plausibly influenced by the interpretation of the gestural activities of other people in the child’s world. That is, when the infant interprets the mother’s “pure point” as referential, she herself begins to indicate objects with a more regular use of indexical pointing. I believe indicative pointing is learned early as a referential convention.

Detailed case studies can open to exploration the establishment and integration of systems of sensori motor schemata and their interplay with referential conventions. These will all be necessary to understand well the development of language mastery. Work on this case will continue, drawing on ideas of Piaget, (1952; also his Preface to Inhelder et al., 1974), the semiotics of McNeill (1979), and structural change suggestions in Lawler (1985 and 1987) and Minsky (1985).

Works Referenced
Bruner, J. (1978). The Emergence of the Pure Point. Reference incomplete.
Chomsky, N. (1975) Reflections on Language. Random House, New York, NY.
Inhelder, B., H. Sinclair, and M. Bovet (1974) Learning and the Development of Cognition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Lawler, R. W. (1985) Computer Experience and Cognitive Development. John Wiley Sons, New York.
Lawler, R. W. (1987) “Coadaptation and the Development of Cognitive Structures” in Advances in Artificial Intelligence, DuBoulay, et al. (Elsevier)
McNeill, D. (1979) The Conceptual Basis of Language. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ
Miller, G. A. (1981) Language and Speech. W. H. Freeman, San Francisco.
Minsky, M. (1985) The Society of Mind. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Piaget, J. (1952) The Origins of Intelligence in Children. Norton, New York.

* Professor Hermine Sinclair DeZwaart, “Mimi” to her friends, was an adviser and guide in the case corpus construction on which this analysis is based. I felt privileged to enjoy the friendship, generosity, and good humour which graced her many professional virtues.

Presented at the 31st Annual Meeting of the Jean Piaget Society, Berkeley, CA, 2001

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