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Words are not enough: how preschoolers’ integration of perspective and emotion informs their referential understanding*


When linguistic information alone does not clarify a speaker's intended meaning, skilled communicators can draw on a variety of cues to infer communicative intent. In this paper, we review research examining the developmental emergence of preschoolers’ sensitivity to a communicative partner's perspective. We focus particularly on preschoolers’ tendency to use cues both within the communicative context (i.e. a speaker's visual access to information) and within the speech signal itself (i.e. emotional prosody) to make on-line inferences about communicative intent. Our review demonstrates that preschoolers’ ability to use visual and emotional cues of perspective to guide language interpretation is not uniform across tasks, is sometimes related to theory of mind and executive function skills, and, at certain points of development, is only revealed by implicit measures of language processing.

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Address for correspondence: S. Graham, Dept. of Psychology, University of Calgary, Calgary AB, T2N 1N4, Canada; e-mail:
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This work was supported by funds from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs program, and the University of Calgary, and by an operating grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada awarded to Susan Graham. Valerie San Juan was supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from SSHRC and an Eyes High Fellowship from the University of Calgary. We are very grateful to our collaborators on the research reviewed in this paper: Jared Berman, Craig Chambers, and Elizabeth Nilsen. We also thank Nina Anderson for her assistance with the preparation of the manuscript.

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