Guess who? Children use prosody to infer intended listeners

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Abstract

This study examined the relative influence of prosody and semantic content in children's inferences about intended listeners. Children (n = 72), who ranged in age from 5 to 10 years, heard greetings with prosody and content that was either infant or adult directed and chose the intended listener from amongst an infant or an adult. While content affected all children's choices, the effect of prosody was stronger (at least, for children aged 7–10 years). For conditions in which prosodic cues were suggestive of one listener, and content cues, another, children aged 7–10 years chose the listener according to prosody. In contrast, the youngest age group (5- to 6-year-olds) chose listeners at chance levels in these incongruent conditions. While prosodic cues were most influential in determining children's choices, their ratings of how certain they felt about their choices indicated that content nonetheless influenced their thinking about the intended listener. Results are the first to show the unique influence of prosody in children's thinking about appropriate speech styles. Findings add to work showing children's ability to use prosody to make inferences about speakers' communicative intentions.

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