How do children learn to avoid referential ambiguity? Insights from eye-tracking

Hugh Rabagliati, Alexander Robertson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Children have considerable difficulty producing informative and unambiguous referring expressions, a fact that still lacks a full explanation. Potential insight can come from psycholinguistic models of ambiguity avoidance in adults, which suggest that, before describing any scene, speakers pro-actively monitor for some — but not all — types of potential ambiguity, and then subsequently monitor whether their just-produced expression provides an ambiguous description. Our experiments used eye tracking to assess the developing roles of these skills in children’s referential communication. Experiment 1 shows that adults’ eye movements can index the processes of both pro-active and self-monitoring. Experiments 2 and 3 show that children (n = 110) typically do not pro-actively monitor for potential ambiguity, although they do show evidence of pro-active monitoring on the occasions when they produce informative expressions. However, we do find evidence that children consistently monitor their own descriptions for ambiguity, even though they rarely correct their utterances. We propose that the process of self-monitoring might act as a learning signal, that guides children as they acquire the ability to monitor pro-actively.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-27
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Early online date3 Dec 2016
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2017

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • referential communication
  • language production
  • development
  • eye tracking
  • ambiguity


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