The first crank of the cultural ratchet: Learning and transmitting concepts through language

AbstractHuman knowledge accumulates over generations, amplifying our individual learning abilities. What is the mechanism of this accumulation? Here, we explore how language allows accurate transmission of conceptual knowledge. We introduce a novel experimental paradigm that allows direct comparison of learning from examples and learning from language. In our experiment, a teacher first learns a Boolean concept from examples; they then communicate this concept to a student in a free conversation; finally, we test both teacher and student on the same transfer items. We find that learning from language is both sufficient and efficient: Students achieve accuracy very close to their teachers, while studying for less time. We then explore the language used by teachers and find heavy reliance on generics and quantifiers. Taken together, these results suggest that cultural accumulation of conceptual knowledge arises from the ability of language to directly convey generalizations.

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