Two-year-olds exclude novel objects as potential referents of novel words based on pragmatics.
Many studies have established that children tend to exclude objects for which they already have a name as potential referents of novel words. In the current study we asked whether this exclusion can be triggered by social-pragmatic context alone without pre-existing words as blockers. Two-year-old children watched an adult looking at a novel object while saying a novel word with excitement. In one condition the adult had not seen the object beforehand, and so the children interpreted the adult's utterance as referring to the gazed-at object. In another condition the adult and child had previously played jointly with the gazed-at object. In this case, children less often assumed that the adult was referring to the object but rather they searched for an alternative referent--presumably because they inferred that the gazed-at object was old news in their common ground with the adult and so not worthy of excited labeling. Since this inference based on exclusion is highly similar to that underlying the Principle of Contrast/Mutual Exclusivity, we propose that this principle is not purely lexical but rather is based on children's understanding of how and why people direct one another's attention to things either with or without language.
Grassmann, S; Stracke, M; Tomasello, M
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