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Pragmatic inferences in context: learning to interpret contrastive prosody*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2016

University of Rochester, USA
Stanford University, USA
Address for correspondence: Chigusa Kurumada, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, 304 Meliora Hall, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627-0268. e-mail:


Can preschoolers make pragmatic inferences based on the intonation of an utterance? Previous work has found that young children appear to ignore intonational meanings and come to understand contrastive intonation contours only after age six. We show that four-year-olds succeed in interpreting an English utterance, such as “It LOOKS like a zebra”, to derive a conversational implicature, namely [but it isn't one], as long as they can access a semantically stronger alternative, in this case “It's a zebra”. We propose that children arrive at the implicature by comparing such contextually provided alternatives. Contextually leveraged inferences generalize across speakers and contexts, and thus drive the acquisition of intonational meanings. Our findings show that four-year-olds and adults are able to bootstrap their interpretation of the contrast-marking intonation by taking into account alternative utterances produced in the same context.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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Thanks to Sarah Bibyk, T. Florian Jaeger, Michael K. Tanenhaus, the HLP and Kurumada-Tanenhaus Labs for helpful feedback and advice; to Olga Nikolayeva, the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University, the Rochester Baby Lab, and the Children's School at University of Rochester Medical Center for help in subject testing. This research was funded by a Stanford Graduate Fellowship and a JSPS Post Doctoral Research Fellowship awarded to CK, and by an award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH R01 #HD27206) to Michael K. Tanenhaus (University of Rochester).



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