Audience Design in Children: Evidence of listener-specific conceptual reference at 6-7 years old
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Reid Milligan, Simon D.
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Speakers tend to design their utterances specifically for respective audiences (AD). The knowledge that a referential concept is shared with a particular listener allows the speaker to make, otherwise ambiguous, abbreviated and definite reference. Following conflicting evidence regarding the onset of competent listener-specific design, the current paper aims to experimentally expose the natural capacity for AD at 6-7 years. Thirty-one children (M age = 6;8) performed a referential communication task describing the order of the same set of 4 tangram and 4 picture cards to an experimenter who became familiar over Trials 1-3, to a new experimenter in Trial 4, and again to the original partner in Trial 5. Referential descriptions were coded for 3 measures of AD – mean number of words used, hedging, and whether they were definitely or indefinitely determined. Participants showed exemplary patterns of AD in their fluctuating length of tangram descriptions. References were significantly shortened for the familiar listener (Trial 1 to 2); significantly lengthened for a new listener (Trial 3 to 4); and then significantly shortened again on reunion (Trial 4 to 5). The shortening for a familiar partner shows successful entrainment of nomenclature whilst lengthening shows application of the Listener Rule. Similarly, participants only made definite references with a familiar partner. A null result of familiarity on tentative hedging and indefinite determining of references is thought to be a methodological artefact rather than theoretical shortcoming. It is concluded that 6-7 year olds do show competence of AD, refuting the classic Piagetian position. With wider spread testing and methodological refinement, insight could be gained to the underlying mechanisms of AD.