Robots that Say ‘No’. Affective Symbol Grounding and the Case of Intent Interpretations

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Modern theories on early child language acquisition tend to focus on referential words, mostly nouns, labeling concrete objects, or physical properties. In this experimental proof-of-concept study, we show how nonreferential negation words, typically belonging to a child's first ten words, may be acquired. A child-like humanoid robot is deployed in speech-wise unconstrained interaction with naïve human participants. In agreement with psycholinguistic observations, we corroborate the hypothesis that affect plays a pivotal role in the socially distributed acquisition process where the adept conversation partner provides linguistic interpretations of the affective displays of the less adept speaker. Negation words are prosodically salient within intent interpretations that are triggered by the learner's display of affect. From there they can be picked up and used by the budding language learner which may involve the grounding of these words in the very affective states that triggered them in the first place. The pragmatic analysis of the robot's linguistic performance indicates that the correct timing of negative utterances is essential for the listener to infer the meaning of otherwise ambiguous negative utterances. In order to assess the robot's performance thoroughly comparative data from psycholinguistic studies of parent-child dyads is needed highlighting the need for further interdisciplinary work.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8120012
Pages (from-to)530 - 544
Number of pages15
JournalIEEE Transactions on Cognitive and Developmental Systems
Issue number3
Early online date27 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2018


  • Developmental robotics
  • human-robot interaction
  • language acquisition
  • negation
  • pragmatics
  • psycholinguistics
  • social robotics


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