Adults are more efficient in creating and transmitting novel signalling systems than children

Vera Kempe*, Nicolas Gauvrit, Alison Gibson, Margaret Jamieson

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    11 Citations (Scopus)
    128 Downloads (Pure)


    Iterated language learning experiments have shown that meaningful and structured signalling systems emerge when there is pressure for signals to be both learnable and expressive. Yet such experiments have mainly been conducted with adults using language-like signals. Here we explore whether structured signalling systems can also emerge when signalling domains are unfamiliar and when the learners are children with their well-attested cognitive and pragmatic limitations. In Experiment 1, we compared iterated learning of binary auditory sequences denoting small sets of meanings in chains of adults and 5-7-year old children. Signalling systems became more learnable even though iconicity and structure did not emerge despite applying a homonymy filter designed to keep the systems expressive. When the same types of signals were used in referential communication by adult and child dyads in Experiment 2, only the adults, but not the children, were able to negotiate shared iconic and structured signals. Referential communication using their native language by 4-5-year old children in Experiment 3 showed that only interaction with adults, but not with peers resulted in informative expressions. These findings suggest that emergence and transmission of communication systems is unlikely to be driven by children, and point to the importance of cognitive maturity and pragmatic expertise of learners as well as feedback-based scaffolding of communicative effectiveness by experts during language evolution.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article numberlzy012
    Pages (from-to)44-70
    Number of pages26
    JournalJournal of Language Evolution
    Issue number1
    Early online date15 Feb 2019
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2019


    • Language transmission
    • Iterated learning
    • Referential communication
    • Iconicity
    • Children


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