Preschoolers Restrict the Scope of Labels Within Their Own Linguistic Group
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An understanding of the conventional nature of language entails a recognition that word meanings are shared widely within a group, but due to the arbitrary nature, vary across different groups and are limited to those individuals who use them. Within a linguistic group, many words are shared by all speakers; however, some word meanings are shared by a subset of speakers.. For example, in the U.K. trucks and elevators are referred to by different names. No work has examined whether children understand that word meanings are shared narrowly within their own linguistic group. To better understand children’s appreciation of the restricted scope of word meanings, and thus their conventional understanding of language, I examined whether children assumed that familiar and newly acquired labels would be shared by an English speaker who uses non-local conventions. Moreover, I asked whether a speaker’s accent might affect children’s judgment of one’s conventional knowledge. A native accented experimenter trained children on two novel object labels. Children were then familiarized to a video of a speaker with either a native or non-native accent who spoke English but labeled familiar objects with either conventional or novel labels. Children then participated in a disambiguation task, in which they were presented with an object, which they had a previous label for, and an unnamed object. On certain test trials, the object pair was a familiar and a novel object, and on other trials, it was the training object pairs from earlier on. I found that when the speaker previously used non-local conventions, children did not assume that the speaker would have knowledge of the conventional names of the objects during test. In contrast, when the speaker previously used local conventional labels, children assumed that the speaker would have knowledge of the familiar objects during test. These findings suggest that children may recognize that word meanings can be shared narrowly within their own linguistic group, which provides evidence that children may understand that word meanings are arbitrary agreements shared by specific group. This finding supports the possibility that children’s understanding of language is consistent with the principles of conventionality.