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Models, Signs, and Universal Rules

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Very soon, however, something more occurs. The first instances of an internally modeled world may not at first connect to signs that we can hear or see, but before long the infant is crying or making gestural signs to ask for food and certainly is gesturing to communicate its desire to be picked up or held. An object in sight but out of reach may still be reached for, but an unbiased observer can see that the infant is anticipating its capture: The child’s reaching, pointing hand assumes the shape it would have if the object were within it. Infants also represent events within the nursery. Long before “Daddy gone” and similar observations emerge as an infant’s early two-word utterances, a shift in gaze and a pointing, moving finger or hand have been visibly expressing the idea.

In all this, I believe, we can see (if we care to look) a smooth transition from the images formed within the infant’s brand new but fast-growing brain to a visible representation of them. Soon, or at the same time, the infant also communicates wants and needs to a significant other. In this way much of the infant’s environment, both substance (things, persons, and pets) and accident (things the infant sees happening that attract attention) receive their first internal representation (the percept becomes concept). But as soon as they are formed, these visible representations are deemed by others to constitute the first attempts at communication. It is unfortunate that usually our children get no credit for really communicating anything but the obvious (“I’m hungry”; “I’m wet”) until they begin to speak.

Those few who look to infants with an open mind see much that is usually missed. For instance, professionals and parents in Irvine, California, and in Columbus, Ohio, are using “baby signs” to interact with infants. They take the gestures and meanings from the infants themselves, imposing nothing from “above,” and their efforts are being rewarded. Moreover, a careful search of the literature and their own research has convinced Virginia Volterra in Rome and Jana Iverson in Chicago (1995) that all infants, whether they can hear or not, use meaningful movements and gestures for months before they begin to use the parental language.

Nothing so far presupposes (or needs to presuppose) the innate presence in infant brains of “universal grammar.” Like other creatures, from birth onward human infants model their world, and like many others, they make overt signs that represent pieces of their models—the things and events they perceive and react to. Because they are human, our infants carry modeling and representing much further than do other animals, for evolution has equipped them to do this not only with a human brain but with human hands and uniquely human articulation of the joints from shoulder to finger ends (Wilson 1998).

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