Twelve-month-old infants recognize that speech can communicate unobservable intentions

Athena Vouloumanos, Kristine H. Onishi, Amanda Pogue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Much of our knowledge is acquired not from direct experience but through the speech of others. Speech allows rapid and efficient transfer of information that is otherwise not directly observable. Do infants recognize that speech, even if unfamiliar, can communicate about an important aspect of the world that cannot be directly observed: a person's intentions? Twelve-month-olds saw a person (the Communicator) attempt but fail to achieve a target action (stacking a ring on a funnel). The Communicator subsequently directed either speech or a nonspeech vocalization to another person (the Recipient) who had not observed the attempts. The Recipient either successfully stacked the ring (Intended outcome), attempted but failed to stack the ring (Observable outcome), or performed a different stacking action (Related outcome). Infants recognized that speech could communicate about unobservable intentions, looking longer at Observable and Related outcomes than the Intended outcome when the Communicator used speech. However, when the Communicator used nonspeech, infants looked equally at the three outcomes. Thus, for 12-montholds, speech can transfer information about unobservable aspects of the world such as internal mental states, which provides preverbal infants with a tool for acquiring information beyond their immediate experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12933-12937
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number32
StatePublished - Aug 7 2012


  • Communication
  • Infant cognitive development
  • Infant speech perception
  • Knowledge acquisition
  • Psychological reasoning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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