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How do three-year-olds use relevance inferencing to interpret indirect speech?

Abbot-Smith, Kirsten, Schulze, Cornelia, Anagnostopoulou, Nefeli, Zajączkowska, Maria Katarzyna, Matthews, Danielle (2021) How do three-year-olds use relevance inferencing to interpret indirect speech? First Language, . ISSN 0142-7237. E-ISSN 1740-2344. (doi:10.1177/01427237211043594) (KAR id:88218)

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If a child asks a friend to play football and the friend replies “I have a cough”, the requesting child must make a ‘relevance inference’ to determine the communicative intent. Relevance inferencing is a key component of pragmatics, that is, the ability to integrate social context into language interpretation and use. We tested which cognitive skills relate to relevance inferencing. Additionally, we asked whether children’s lab-based pragmatic performance relates to children’s parent-assessed pragmatic language skills. We tested 3½- to 4-year-olds (Study 1: N = 40, Study 2: N = 32). Children were presented with video-recorded vignettes ending with an utterance requiring a relevance inference, for which children made a forced choice. Study 1 measured children’s Theory of Mind, their sentence comprehension and their real-world knowledge and found that only real-world knowledge retained significance in a regression analysis with children’s relevance inferencing as the outcome variable. Study 2 then manipulated children’s world-knowledge via priming but found this did not improve children’s performance on the relevance inferencing task. Study 2 did, however, find a significant correlation between children’s relevance inferencing and a measure of morpho-syntactic production. In both studies parents rated their children’s pragmatic language usage in daily life, which was found to relate to performance in our lab-based relevance inferencing task. This set of studies is the first to empirically demonstrate that lab-based measures of relevance inferencing are reflective of children’s pragmatic abilities ‘in the wild’. We argue that real-world knowledge is a necessary (but not sufficient) for relevance inferencing.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1177/01427237211043594
Uncontrolled keywords: pragmatics; implicature; inferencing; indirect speech; child; preschool; knowledge; vocabulary; Theory of Mind;
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Psychology
Depositing User: Kirsten Abbot-Smith
Date Deposited: 17 May 2021 14:16 UTC
Last Modified: 14 Sep 2021 09:37 UTC
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Abbot-Smith, Kirsten:
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