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March 18, 2009


I'd be astonished if language acquisition didn't work that way.

To me, this does not look like "avoiding dissent" as much as the only sensible way of learning a language. Labels are inherently arbitrary, so it makes sense to assign them the referent assigned to them by the majority, since the purpose of language is to communicate and therefore you want to assign labels to the same referents everybody else does. As for subsequent identifications by members of the majority and a dissenter, without further information is only rational to assume that the person that was "right" before is more likely to be right now, considering that in "label assignment" right is just sharing the majority opinion.

I think the point is not that the children are wrong to apply this heuristic, but rather that this is a possible mechanism for where the heuristic (which is not appropriate for all cases) comes from.

I agree with Josh. The easiest way to learn "foreign" vocabulary is point to an object and ask Mommy/Danish speaking friend/French teacher/native on the beach/whatever "what's that?"

Since words in any language are social products, of course you go with the majority, unless you are strongly signaling an in-group via slang.

Altho' my mother has a thing about hating oatmeal and always refers to it as "library paste," that doesn't mean I would offer that as a correct vocabulary term for the Irish steel-cut product when teaching a Martian English.

I'll have to second (third) the above and say that I'm not sure how informative the study is because it centers on language. As posters above have pointed out, language acquisition is almost certainly biased in favor of the majority. I'd be interested to see how kids respond to a different situation, where the majority is purely expressing preferences [say, favorite color] rather than conveying information. It would be clearer, then, that children follow the majority for reasons of conformity.

My guess is that, since language acquisition is likely biased toward accepting majority opinions, our entire learning mechanism is, to various degrees, likely biased toward the majority. I don't know whether this is biological/evolutionary, or if we simply realize early in life that following the majority tends to be right, because that is true in learning language. Probably our brains have evolved a propensity toward learning it, and then we do.

Were the dissenting toddlers 'right'?

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