Three-year-olds' comprehension of contrastive and descriptive adjectives: Evidence for contrastive inference

Catherine Davies, Jamie Lingwood, Bissera Ivanova, Sudha Arunachalam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Combining information from adjectives with the nouns they modify is essential for comprehension. Previous research suggests that preschoolers do not always integrate adjectives and nouns, and may instead over-rely on noun information when processing referring expressions (Fernald, Thorpe, & Marchman, 2010; Thorpe, Baumgartner, & Fernald, 2006). This disjointed processing has implications for pragmatics, apparently preventing under-fives from making contrastive inferences (Huang & Snedeker, 2013). Using a novel experimental design that allows preschoolers time to demonstrate their abilities in adjective-noun integration and in contrastive inference, two visual world experiments investigate how English-speaking three-year-olds (N = 73, Mage = 44 months) process size adjectives across syntactic (prenominal; postnominal) and pragmatic (descriptive; contrastive) contexts. We show that preschoolers are able to integrate adjectives and nouns to resolve reference accurately by the end of the referring expression, in a variety of pragmatic and syntactic contexts and in the presence of multiple distractors. We reveal for the first time that they can contrastively infer, given a slowed speed of presentation and visually salient size contrasts. Our findings provide evidence for a continuity in the development of pragmatic skills, which do not appear to be linked to children's language proficiency or speed of processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104707
JournalCognition
Volume212
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 2021

Keywords

  • Adjectives
  • Contrastive inference
  • Developmental pragmatics
  • Eye tracking
  • Language development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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