Mutual exclusivity : the role of the speaker's referential intent

Krogh-Jespersen, Shelia Ann
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Previous research has suggested that young children are equipped with mechanisms that aid in the acquisition of language. One of these mechanisms is the Mutual Exclusivity Constraint, which is an expectation that every object has only one label that will apply to it. This study investigates the ways in which the context of a labeling event, such as evidence of referential intent, may influence children's willingness to apply a second label to an object for which they already have a label. 24-month-old children interacted with an adult speaker who either accurately or inaccurately labeled objects known to be familiar to the child. Children's adherence to Mutual Exclusivity was tested when the speaker attempted to teach novel labels ("gep" and "danu") for familiar objects. The results indicate that by the age of 24 months, children attend to the referential cues provided by the speaker. When the speaker labels accurately, children are more willing to override the Mutual Exclusivity Constraint to learn a second label for an object that is familiar to them.