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Spontaneous imitation demonstrates infants' active contribution to development


Hilbrink,  Elma
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
INTERACT, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Hilbrink, E., Sakkalou, E., Ellis-Davies, K., Fowler, N., & Gattis, M. (2012). Spontaneous imitation demonstrates infants' active contribution to development. Talk presented at the XVIII Biennial International Conference on Infant Studies. Minneapolis, MN. 2012-06-07 - 2012-06-09.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-000F-EA2C-9
Over the past decades experimental studies have considerably increased our knowledge of ‘when’ and ‘what’ infants are able to imitate. However, this knowledge is limited to elicited imitation. Not much is known about spontaneous imitation because one cannot ‘elicit’ spontaneous imitation in experimental studies: it must by definition be studied observationally. A few studies have observed the occurrence of spontaneous imitation in the home environment through mother-infant interaction observations (Pawlby, 1977; Masur, 1987; Masur & Rodemaker, 1999). However, their findings are based on limited hours of video observations (10-15 minutes per observation) and often did not distinguish between whether the imitative behaviour was encouraged by the mother or was truly spontaneous. As a consequence of the lack of information on spontaneous imitation, many theories of development of imitation (see for example Csibra & Gergely, 2006, 2009; or Jones, 2009) place much emphasis on the role of the environment on the infant’s development (unidirectional view). However others suggest a more active involvement of the child in its own developmental process (Flynn, Masur & Eichorst, 2004). The aim of the present longitudinal study was to assess the role of spontaneous and elicited imitation in the development of object imitation in the home during the first year of life, and to capture the developmental pattern from the earliest onset of object imitation. To do so, we used a Continuous Unified (CUE) Diary method. Method Thirty mothers made continuous observations of imitation from birth to 18 months and recorded them in an electronic diary. For the current study we analyzed all instances of imitation involving actions on objects at 4- to 6- months and at 10- to 12- months of age, distinguishing between spontaneous (Table 1) and elicited imitation (Table 2). Based on an unidirectional view of imitation, in which the child is merely a receiver of external inputs, no major role for spontaneous imitation is expected, instead one would expect a larger role for imitative instances which are elicited. In contrast, the hypothesis that children actively contribute to the development of imitation predicts an important role for spontaneous imitation in the development of object imitation during the first year of life. Results Object imitation occurred on average once per infant during the 4- to 6- month period. Object imitation significantly increased by the time infants were 10- to 12- months, with the largest increase observed in spontaneous imitation. Spontaneous imitation from 4- to 6- months significantly predicted the increase in spontaneous imitation from 10- to 12- months. This was not true for elicited imitation. Thus although object imitation is rare during the 4- to 6- month period, it is meaningful. In particular spontaneous object imitation plays an important role in the development of imitation. Summary Infants’ initiative in spontaneously imitating actions on objects early on in the first year predicts the development of object imitation toward the end of the first year. This provides support for the hypothesis that children actively contribute to the developmental process.