Cross-situational learning is a mechanism for learning the meaning of words across multiple exposures, despite exposure-by-exposure uncertainty as to the word's true meaning. We present experimental evidence showing that humans learn words effectively using cross-situational learning, even at high levels of referential uncertainty. Both overall success rates and the time taken to learn words are affected by the degree of referential uncertainty, with greater referential uncertainty leading to less reliable, slower learning. Words are also learned less successfully and more slowly (...) if they are presented interleaved with occurrences of other words, although this effect is relatively weak. We present additional analyses of participants’ trial-by-trial behavior showing that participants make use of various cross-situational learning strategies, depending on the difficulty of the word-learning task. When referential uncertainty is low, participants generally apply a rigorous eliminative approach to cross-situational learning. When referential uncertainty is high, or exposures to different words are interleaved, participants apply a frequentist approximation to this eliminative approach. We further suggest that these two ways of exploiting cross-situational information reside on a continuum of learning strategies, underpinned by a single simple associative learning mechanism. (shrink)
The emergence of signaling systems has been observed in numerous experimental and real-world contexts, but there is no consensus on which shared mechanisms underlie such phenomena. A number of explanatory mechanisms have been proposed within several disciplines, all of which have been instantiated as credible working models. However, they are usually framed as being mutually incompatible. Using an exemplar-based framework, we replicate these models in a minimal configuration which allows us to directly compare them. This reveals that the development of (...) optimal signaling is driven by similar mechanisms in each model, which leads us to propose three requirements for the emergence of conventional signaling. These are the creation and transmission of referential information, a systemic bias against ambiguity, and finally some form of information loss. Considering this, we then discuss some implications for theoretical and experimental approaches to the emergence of learned communication. (shrink)
Words refer to objects in the world, but this correspondence is not one-to-one: Each word has a range of referents that share features on some dimensions but differ on others. This property of language is called underspecification. Parts of the lexicon have characteristic patterns of underspecification; for example, artifact nouns tend to specify shape, but not color, whereas substance nouns specify material but not shape. These regularities in the lexicon enable learners to generalize new words appropriately. How does the lexicon (...) come to have these helpful regularities? We test the hypothesis that systematic backgrounding of some dimensions during learning and use causes language to gradually change, over repeated episodes of transmission, to produce a lexicon with strong patterns of underspecification across these less salient dimensions. This offers a cultural evolutionary mechanism linking individual word learning and generalization to the origin of regularities in the lexicon that help learners generalize words appropriately. (shrink)
Several evolutionary accounts of human social cognition posit that language has co-evolved with the sophisticated mindreading abilities of modern humans. It has also been argued that these mindreading abilities are the product of cultural, rather than biological, evolution. Taken together, these claims suggest that the evolution of language has played an important role in the cultural evolution of human social cognition. Here we present a new computational model which formalises the assumptions that underlie this hypothesis, in order to explore how (...) language and mindreading interact through cultural evolution. This model treats communicative behaviour as an interplay between the context in which communication occurs, an agent’s individual perspective on the world, and the agent’s lexicon. However, each agent’s perspective and lexicon are private mental representations, not directly observable to other agents. Learners are therefore confronted with the task of jointly inferring the lexicon and perspective of their cultural parent, based on their utterances in context. Simulation results show that given these assumptions, an informative lexicon evolves not just under a pressure to be successful at communicating, but also under a pressure for accurate perspective-inference. When such a lexicon evolves, agents become better at inferring others’ perspectives; not because their innate ability to learn about perspectives changes, but because sharing a language with others helps them to do so. (shrink)
The articles in this theme issue seek to understand the evolutionary bases of social learning and the consequences of cultural transmission for the evolution of human behaviour. In this introductory article, we provide a summary of these articles and a personal view of some promising lines of development suggested by the work summarized here.
We use a transmission chain method to establish how context and category salience influence the formation of novel stereotypes through cumulative cultural evolution. We created novel alien targets by combining features from three category dimensions—color, movement, and shape—thereby creating social targets that were individually unique but that also shared category membership with other aliens. At the start of the transmission chains each alien was randomly assigned attributes that described it. Participants were given training on the alien-attribute assignments and were then (...) tested on their memory for these. The alien-attribute assignments participants produced during test were used as the training materials for the next participant in the transmission chain. As information was repeatedly transmitted an increasingly simplified, learnable stereotype-like structure emerged for targets who shared the same color, such that by the end of the chains targets who shared the same color were more likely to share the same attributes. The apparent bias toward the formation of novel stereotypes around the color category dimension was also found for objects. However, when the category dimension of color was made less salient, it no longer dominated the formation of novel stereotypes. The current findings suggest that context and category salience influence category dimension salience, which in turn influences the cumulative cultural evolution of information. (shrink)
If protolanguage was a holistic system where complex meanings were conveyed using unanalysed forms, there must be some process which delivered up the elements of modern language from this system. This paper draws on evidence from computational modelling, developmental and historical linguistics and comparative psychology to evaluate the plausibility of the analysis process. While some of the criticisms levelled at analysis can be refuted using such evidence, several areas are highlighted where further evidence is required to decide key issues. More (...) generally, the debate over the nature of protolanguage offers a framework for developing and showcasing a modern, evidence-based evolutionary linguistics. (shrink)
We agree that language adapts to the brain, but we note that language also has to adapt to brain-external constraints, such as those arising from properties of the cultural transmission medium. The hypothesis that Christiansen & Chater (C&C) raise in the target article not only has profound consequences for our understanding of language, but also for our understanding of the biological evolution of the language faculty.