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FRIHUMSAM-Fri prosj.st. hum og sam

Vision shapes language: Referential communication in blind, sighted and newly-sighted individuals

Alternative title: Syn former språk: Referensiell kommunikasjon blant blinde, seende og personer som får synet tilbake

Awarded: NOK 11.6 mill.

This research project aims to investigate the contribution of visual processes to verbal communication; in particular, the act of referring to the physical world around us. In order to investigate this question, the communicative abilities of sighted and blind children will be studied independently and comparatively. The project will also investigate the referential abilities of a third and unique population, the Prakash children of Delhi: newly-sighted children who gained vision after they acquired language. Since language acquisition takes place either with or without vision, studying the communicative development of newly-sighted children will give me an extraordinary opportunity: to isolate the contribution of visual processes to the development of communication. My first research question is therefore unprecedented: how do the communicative abilities of blind children change once they gain vision? The project will combine three research strands: blind, sighted and newly-sighted communication, and compare the communicative abilities of school children with those of adults. The main focus of the three research strands will be the process of 'audience design', or how speakers tailor their referential expressions to the needs of their interlocutors. To investigate this question, I will use referential communication tasks in which pairs of participants interact with one another to arrange various objects in a display. My main interest in this type of task is to see how speakers refer to the different objects in the display, and whether their choice of referential expression reveals that children are taking their interlocutor's perspective (e.g., by avoiding ambiguity). The speakers' eye-movements will be recorded in order to investigate how visual processes affect the generation of referential expressions. I will also adopt a longitudinal perspective, following the communicative development Prakash children over a period of 4 years. Since the project started 7 months ago, we have piloted an eye-tracking task on two groups of Prakash children and a group of sighted controls and are getting ready to run the final version of the task in the new year. This study will look at how children follow perceptual cues in referential communication (e.g., gaze following) and how these abilities develop in the Prakash children. We have also piloted a social cognition task on blind children and are also planning to run the actual experiment in the new year. The aim of that study is to evaluate blind children's understanding of effort and reward from other people's behavior. In 2018-2019, we completed 3 experiments investigating the communicative abilities of the Prakash kids with a focus on their attention to faces. While their communication was comparable to sighted controls, we noticed that the Prakash children did not make eye contact or follow their interlocutor's head movement to orient towards new referents. We are now in the process of designing one more task, where we hope that the Prakash children will start showing an interest in faces if they get adequate feedback. In 2019-2020, we piloted the last task of our study investigating children's attention to faces in referential communication. Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been unable to complete that study. However, since the lockdown started in March 2020, we have written up 6 papers, which are currently under review in top journals (i.e. Cognition; Journal of Memory and Language; Cognitive Psychology; Nature Communications; Journal of Child Language; Linguistics and Philosophy). This is in addition to the 5 papers we already published in 2020. Since it is unclear when the ongoing pandemic will be resolved, we have also been working on adapting our interactive tasks to be delivered via Skype/Zoom, both to the Prakash Girls schooled at Silver Linings and to the control children we are recruiting online at a local school in Delhi. Data collection has started this week and we hope to have completed two studies by January 2021. In 2020-2021, we adapted our experimental tasks to be conducted on-line because of the restrictions imposed by the COVID pandemic. We were able to complete two tasks with Prakash children, neurotypical controls and adults in the Delhi area. These two papers have already been written up and submitted, and are currently under review with Developmental Psychology and Neuropsychologia. In addition, we have finished coding and analyzing a third study (including two separate experiments) and are currently writing it up. We also have an additional seven papers currently under review.

This research project aims to investigate the contribution of visual processes to verbal communication; in particular, the act of referring to the physical world around us. In order to investigate this question, the referential abilities of sighted and blind individuals will be studied independently and comparatively. The project will also investigate the referential abilities of a third and unique population, the Prakash children of Delhi: newly-sighted children who gained vision after they acquired language. Since language acquisition takes place either with or without vision, studying the communicative development of newly-sighted children will give me an extraordinary opportunity: to isolate the contribution of visual processes to the development of referential communication. My first research question is therefore unprecedented: how do the communicative abilities of blind children change once they gain vision? The project will combine three research strands: blind, sighted and newly-sighted communication, and compare the referential abilities of school children with those of adults. The main focus of the three research strands will be the pragmatic process of 'audience design' in referential communication, or how speakers tailor their referential expressions to the needs of their interlocutors. To investigate this question, I will use referential communication tasks in which pairs of participants interact with one another to arrange various objects in a display. My main interest in this type of task is to see how speakers refer to the different objects in the display, and whether their choice of referential expression reveals perspective taking (e.g., by avoiding ambiguity). The speakers' eye-movements will be recorded in order to investigate how visual processes affect the generation of referential expressions. I will also adopt a longitudinal perspective, following the pragmatic development of Prakash children over a period of 4 years.

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FRIHUMSAM-Fri prosj.st. hum og sam