Role of labelling and interaction in the development of linguistic category coherence
Suffill, Ellise Marissa
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When we perceive the world, we can carve it up in different ways. People divide up objects into categories in similar ways when asked to do so without language. In contrast, when people use language to label groups of objects, significant differences appear across speakers of different languages. How do labels affect the way that we categorize, and sometimes make us carve up the world more similarly to other people? Secondly, what happens to people’s categories when speakers of different native languages interact? Using a joint-task paradigm and non-conventionalized labels (i.e., non-word labels and non-linguistic labels that lack a conventionalized meaning within the mental lexicon), I firstly investigated how labels can affect category formation across people, in and out of interactive settings. I found that exposure to another sorter during categorization affected the similarity of people’s categories, both with and without labels. Because of this, I next investigated how similarly individuals sorted objects with and without novel labels, and with and without a context of communication (i.e., sorting for oneself vs. sorting with other people in mind). I found that novel labels only increased category coherence across people when the context was communicative (i.e., the context required participants to sort with coordination of categories in mind). I argue that this is because language is strongly tied to communication and, as such, language can be used as a tool that helps people coordinate in communicative contexts. Therefore, in contexts in which we do not need to coordinate, novel labels do not appear to yield benefits for category coherence. Lastly, I investigated the potential differences in category coherence for interactions between speakers of different native languages (i.e., L1-English and L1- Mandarin/L2-English). Results demonstrated that the effects of category-relevant discussion on category structure and coherence are affected by the status of the speaker, on the basis of whether they are an L1 or L2 speaker of the language. Secondly, they showed that explicit coordination does not always lead to increased category coherence between pairs in L1-L2 dialogues. Achieving coherence in representations of categories can be crucial to successful communication both within and across native speakers of different languages, and labelling and interaction play a key role, alongside context, in the development of this coherence.