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Look before you speak: children's integration of visual information into informative referring expressions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2018

Catherine DAVIES*
University of Leeds, UK
Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, Germany
*Corresponding author. School of Languages, Cultures, and Societies, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK. E-mail:


Children's ability to refer is underpinned by their developing cognitive skills. Using a production task (n = 57), we examined pre-articulatory visual fixations to contrast objects (e.g., to a large apple when the target was a small one) to investigate how visual scanning drives informativeness across development. Eye-movements reveal that although four-year-olds fixate contrast objects to a similar extent as seven-year-olds and adults, this does not result in explicit referential informativeness. Instead, four-year-olds frequently omit distinguishing information from their referring expressions regardless of the comprehensiveness of their visual scan. In contrast, older children make greater use of information gleaned from their visual inspections, like adults. Thus, we find a barrier not to the incidence of contrast fixations by younger children, but to their use of them in referential informativeness. We recommend that follow-up work investigates whether younger children's immature executive skills prevent them from describing referents in relation to contrast objects.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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