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Academic Paper

Title: Young children's sensitivity to listener knowledge and perceptual context in choosing referring expressions
Author: Angelika Wittek
Institution: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Author: Michael Tomasello
Institution: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Linguistic Field: Language Acquisition; Psycholinguistics
Abstract: Speakers use different types of referring expressions depending on what the listener knows or is attending to; for example, they use pronouns for objects that are already present in the immediate discourse or perceptual context. In a first study we found that 2.5- and 3.5-year-old children are strongly influenced by their interlocutor's knowledge of a referent as expressed in her immediately preceding utterance. Specifically, when they are asked a question about a target object ("Where is the broom?"), they tend to use null references or pronouns to refer to that object ("On the shelf" or "It's on the shelf"); in contrast, when they are asked more general questions ("What do we need?") or contrast questions ("Do we need a mop?") that reveal no knowledge of the target object they tend to use lexical nouns ("A broom" or "No, a broom"). In a second study we found that children at around their second birthday are not influenced by immediately preceding utterances in this same way. Finally, in a third study we found that 2.5- and 3.5-year-old children's choice of referring expressions is very little influenced by the physical arrangements of objects in the perceptual context, whether it is absent or needs to be distinguished from a close-by alternative, when they request a target object from a silent adult. These results are discussed in terms of children's emerging understanding of the knowledge and attentional states and other persons.


This article appears IN Applied Psycholinguistics Vol. 26, Issue 4, which you can READ on Cambridge's site or on LINGUIST .

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