The role of social cognition in early syntax: The case of joint attention in argument realization in child Inuktitut

Barbora Skarabela
School of Education, Boston University
July, 2007


This dissertation investigates the role of social cognition in early grammar, focusing on the effect of joint attention on argument realization in the spontaneous speech of children acquiring Inuktitut. It explores the hypothesis that children's choices of linguistic expressions for third person subject and object arguments are influenced by their involvement in joint attention with their interlocutors as a result of children's sensitivity to the interlocutor's attentional focus and to whether or not a target referent is conceptually accessible. Specifically, it was predicted that the children would omit more arguments when the referent was accessible to the listener (i.e., when the interlocutors were involved in joint attention) than when the referent was not accessible to the listener (i.e., when the interlocutors were not involved in joint attention).

The hypothesis was tested against videotaped spontaneous speech data from four monolingual children acquiring Inuktitut (2;0-3;6). The analysis revealed a significant interaction between joint attention and argument form. The children omitted more arguments in the presence of joint attention than in the absence of joint attention. This tendency matched the patterns found in the data from the Inuit adults. The results across the two groups of participants showed a different pattern of behavior for two types of overt arguments, i.e., nouns and demonstratives. Both children and adults produced more nouns in the absence of joint attention. However, the adults produced more demonstratives in the presence of joint attention, whereas the children were equally likely to produce demonstratives in the two different contexts.

The results show that social cognition, i.e., joint attention, plays a role in early grammar. The choices of arguments in early language reflect children's ability to evaluate a target referent's accessibility based on the listener's attentional and, arguably, knowledge state. These skills demonstrate children's early understanding of the intentional and interpersonal nature of their communication patterns. The results of this study also have implications for the development of theory of mind: the signs of early socio-cognitive abilities might be revealed in basic linguistic accomplishments, such as verb argument realization in everyday conversations.