Reciprocal Behaviors

Imitation is one of the interactions in which infants participate from the first days of life. Many experimental studies, including one by Andrew Meltzoff and Keith Moore (1977) have shown that they stick out their tongues, open their mouths, and close their eyes when an adult makes these gestures in front of them, slowly and in a repetitive fashion. These gestures are chosen because they belong to the roster of the newborn's spontaneous productions.

Do these early imitations have the same status as those found later, toward eight to nine months? This question has been the object of long and contradictory debates. For Henri Wallon (1942) they manifest a mimetic mechanism that leads to the sharing of emotions. For Meltzoff and Moore, they are founded on the capacity of chil dren to mentally note equivalences between transformations of their own bodies and those that they see in another. These first imitations may also help the child to pick out and identify the members of the family circle who are recognized not only by their faces but also by their gestures and behaviors. These gestures and behaviors thus promote social identification.

The evolution of what psychologists call intermodal processing is particularly important for cognitive organization. At two months, children detect equivalences between touch and sight (Streri, 1987). They can visually recognize an object that they held in their hand, without seeing it, a moment before. At five months, the baby notices the correspondence between words and the movements of the mouth. This can be proved by a simple experiment: the child is placed in front of two television screens, between which there is an audio speaker. On one of the screens, a woman silently articulates a sound such as [mi]. On the other screen, the same woman articulates, again silently, the sound [ta]. The speaker transmits one of the two sounds. The child will systematically choose to look at the picture that corresponds to the sound transmitted (Kuhl and Meltzoff, 1984; see also MacKain, Studdert-Kennedy, Spieker, and Stern, 1983). This aptitude for relating vision and hearing is of extreme importance for the development of speech. In looking at the face and mouth of their mother while she speaks, children deepen their knowledge of the relation between the perception of sounds and their articulation. We have seen that the most visible sounds—labials—are among the earliest and most frequent in babbling. They are also the first ones to be uttered by hearing-impaired children.

Elaborate forms of imitation develop from the fifth month (Uzgiris, 1993). Frequently, it is the mother who elicits them by imitating a gesture or a vocalization. Through these reciprocal exchanges—in the course of which the infant adopts at first a passive, then an active, role—the child learns to recognize and share emotions and knowledge of the world. Games such as hide-and-go-seek, exchanges of looks, and greetings will take over a bit later from the first interactive behaviors and, in scarcely more elaborate forms, maintain themselves throughout the whole of adult social life.


Among the behaviors connected with early imitation, a special place must be assigned to the vocal exchanges of the third month. Toward three months (between ten and sixteen weeks, generally), and only for a short period, the strange and, until now, rather little-studied behavior called turn-taking appears. It is marked by a spectacular exchange of vocalizations, in the course of which mother and child respond to each other by taking turns vocalizing. The child's response to the vocal prompting of the adult takes the form of echoes. The infant begins to vocalize when the adult stops talking to him—a situation that occurs again several times, giving the impression of a conversation. This stereotyped behavior is fleeting; it lasts for only two to three weeks and corresponds to a very limited period of maturational development. Turn-taking is also observed in the deaf child, a sign that it is triggered by the whole set of physical components that signals a vocal production—the vocal sound, the sight of the movements of the mouth, breathing, and exchanges of looks. Moreover, the maintenance of attention that underlies the rhythms of turn-taking in infants is essentially visual: intermittent eye contact regulates the mutual expectation of the ending of a vocalization.

As a programmed part of development, the function of turn-taking is still poorly understood, but it is believed to determine certain functions programmed for communication. Its adaptive value appears to be particularly rich. It brings into play intermodal stimulations for the recognition and production of speech-related behaviors. The attention brought to bear on the visual factors involved in turn-taking no doubt prefigures the aptitude of five-month-old babies for putting sounds into correspondence with the movements of the mouth. It is one of the sources of intermodal processing of acoustic and visual information. Cognitive organization is therefore structured through turn-taking, but this behavior also allows the child to construct a more personal system of exchange within the context of communication. Finally, turn-taking maximizes the child's opportunity to hear and respond to her mother and the mother's opportunity to hear and respond to her child. It makes them partners in speech.

Expression of Emotion

Newborns express their physiological states and their emotions through crying (signaling hunger, distress, or simply uneasiness), making facial expressions, arm waving, foot stamping, staring, and, very soon, smiling. Smiling occurs quite early, in fact. The baby already smiles at birth, even when delivered prematurely. According to a medieval legend, the starry sky, passing overhead, produces an enchanted music that is perceived by infants, who imagine that they are hearing angels sing in heaven and smile in their sleep. But this "smiling at the angels"—an expression of the bliss and feeling of well-being of the satisfied infant, half-asleep—is not children's only reason for smiling. They also display spontaneous smiles—a true smile in the waking state, a responsive, social smile. This too belongs to those basic behaviors inscribed in the genome of the human species: beyond the pleasure it expresses, it has a social function. It serves to calm others and to establish affective bonds with them. The baby's smile delights the mother and, if the legend of Cypselus is to be believed, softens even the most hardened adults. According to this legend, Cypselus, the future king of Corinth, was to have been killed at birth, but he smiled at his assassins; moved and disarmed by this, they spared him.

Rather quickly the range of gestures and expressions grows. In the child of seven or eight months, various gestures express joy, fear, disgust, pleasure, tenderness—all expressions that the adult easily interprets (Izard et al., 1980).

But does the baby manage to interpret the fundamental expressions of adults? From the first days of life, newborns are sensitive to the expressivity of faces. Their uneasiness in the presence of a fixed and unexpressive face can actually lead to tears, signaling distress at the absence of signs of movement, of life. At the age of ten weeks, infants react in an appropriate fashion to the expressions of their mothers: smiles and vocal encouragements provoke positive reactions; sad faces trouble them (Termine and Izard, 1988). At four months, if one familiarizes infants with portraits of smiling women, they react to a change of expression on the portraits that are next presented to them. In a 1927 study of babies in a home for abandoned children, Charlotte Biihler noticed that, at five months, children responded to emotions when they were expressed both by the face and the voice; at six months, the voice alone sufficed; and at seven months, a slight facial expression was enough to inform children of a happy or angry attitude on the part of the adult. But Biihler added that at eight or nine months children sometimes misinterpret an angry facial expression as a joke or a bit of kidding—perhaps because they are unable to imagine any ground for blame on their side. The capacity for interpretation that comes through in this behavior suggests a considerable degree of cognitive evolution. The child's responses are no longer systematically—or, one might add, physically—tied to the gestures and expressions of the adult, which are now perceived as being able to be treated in a different way. Another type of communication is born with the child's first propensities to understand small jokes and, soon, to make them.

Does the attribution of meaning to the various emotions betrayed by the expressions of a face allow the child to share such emotions? In The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin remarked that his son at six months assumed a melancholy expression, with the corners of the mouth turned down, when he saw his nurse pretend to cry. But such copying did not imply that the child shared the same emotion; he only imitated its effects, without the same sensation being aroused in him. The true sharing of emotions seems to occur later: it accompanies this capacity for interpretation that we have seen emerge at the end of the first year.

The baby's expressions exercise a regulating effect on the behavior of the adult, and the expressions of the adult exercise a regulating effect in turn on the behavior of the baby. Thus, at one year, children interpret and take into account the adult's reactions to guide their exploration of the world. When they are about to touch a new object or venture into an unknown space or react to the presence of an unknown person, babies turn back toward their mother's faces in the expectation of being able to read there some sign of approval or disapproval of what they propose to do. They treat their mother's expressions as a commentary that is directed at them and that they need to take into account. Positive expressions encourage babies to act or to smile at the unknown, whereas negative expressions cause them to withdraw and curl up next to their parents.

Sharing Information About the Outside World

Communicating is also a matter of transmitting information about the outside world. Infants for the most part communicate their inner sensations. Later, when they begin to take an interest in the objects and events of the world, their looks and gestures are interpreted by adults as a function of the environment. Mothers have a tendency to give a meaning to these gestures, to comment on them, and thus to share a semantic context with their children.

This sharing of information about the external world may be analyzed experimentally by observing the evolution of the mutual regard of mother and child (Butterworth and Grover, 1988). Toward six months, children are able to follow the direction of their mother's gaze, on the condition, however, that the object she is looking at is in plain view. At twelve months, they interpret the adult's look more precisely: in the presence of two identical targets, they can isolate the one that the adult is staring at. But they are still incapable, on the evidence of the gaze alone, of determining the location of an object placed behind them or outside their visual field. They will be able to do this only at eighteen months.

At eighteen months, however, vocal communication has taken over and permitted many other exchanges of information about the world of objects. Nonetheless, the interpretation of vocal modulations, facial expressions, and the direction of the eyes provide—and will continue to provide—the child, and the adult as well, with indispensable additional information and support.

Joint attention also underlies the gesture of pointing, whose importance has been much—sometimes too much—stressed. This gesture rests on the ability to look in the direction indicated by another person's finger and, secondarily, on the attribution to the other person of a corresponding ability to look toward what one indicates oneself in making this gesture (Scaife and Bruner, 1975; see also Butterworth and Cochran, 1980).

At twelve months, almost all children are capable of looking in the direction indicated by an adult's gesture. However, it is only between eleven and fifteen months that most children begin to point toward a distant object. At first, they point solely at nearby objects that can be seen by a third party. This gesture, intended to signal a demand or to call attention to interesting objects, will later be used to ask the name of an object. The gesture of pointing is fundamentally a gesture of communication, but there is no relation between the development of language and the early habit of children to point at objects. Many children who point to find out the name of an object store up their knowledge and only later reveal the vocabulary thus accumulated.

Babies have at their disposal a natural "language" that is common to all cultures and consists in the interplay of facial appearances, expressions, gestures, tones of voice, and looks. This interplay, which manifests the "passions of the soul," often accompanies the oral expression of adults. It helps children when they come to interpret words. Family members and friends, by understanding and responding to babies' signals in a practical or affective way, establish a stream of communication with them that quickly becomes enriched during the following months. Without this coordinated exchange of affective and cognitive messages, the development and flowering of the baby's personality are liable to be compromised. Many examples exist of the harm caused by a lack of affectionate care and by the absence of a family circle ready to listen to, and understand, the baby's bodily messages. Deprived of a minimum of love and interaction with adults, infants suffer and become sickly (Cyrulnik, 1993). At bottom, however, the development of speech proceeds by listening. To be fully realized, the child's capacities have an essential need for a model of the native language. In English as in French, after all, the language of the society in which the child grows up is called the mother tongue. The mother occupies a special place—though she is not the only person involved—in the emergence of language by furnishing this model in a format to which the child is quite particularly sensitive. How does she do this? And why?

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