Keynote speaker 2021

Michael Tomasello (Duke University)

Communication Before Language

In his talk, Tomasello lays out central hypotheses on the evolution of language and its origin in gestures. Different reasons make researchers think that communication began with gestures. The aim of these gestures – in babies and chimpanzees – is to elicit a response. In the case of chimpanzees the gestures are flexible and acquired in the community as well as dyadic and directive. Contrary to this, in the case of human gestures, i.e. mainly signing and mimicry, they are unique to the species, universal, and mostly occur naturally. The main difference between these species is that, in the case of humans, there is a shared intentionality, an intention to collaborate with others to achieve common goals and to engage in collaborative activities. These cognitive abilities are not altogether new, rather they are based on pre-existing abilities (e.g., the ability to follow the gaze, manipulative communication, and social learning) and evolutionarily transformed into the collective basis of cooperative communication, collaborative action, and instructed learning.

Thus, the hypothesis proposed by Tomasello is based on the fact that in terms of ontogeny the basic skills and motivations for shared intentionality are present in humans from birth thanks to two main evolutionary adaptations. The first adaptation, also present in other primates, consists in the perception and understanding of action, in the crucial importance for obtaining food and other resources as well as in interactions between partners. The second adaptation, unique to humans, consist in the ability to share emotional states with others.

Ultimately, there is the hope that the study of activities that are evolutionarily linked to shared intentionality will help us better understand how language has evolved in our species. This is because the skills and motivations for shared intentionality are direct expressions of the biological adaptation that allows children to participate in the cultural practices around them.