The role of cognitive accessibility in children’s referential choice

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This chapter reviews the literature on preschool children’s sensitivity to cognitive accessibility in selecting linguistic forms to realize referents in speech. Both spontaneous speech and experimental production studies are reviewed, encompassing thirteen languages for monolingual children and five different language pairs for bilingual children. Across languages, children show sensitivity to referent accessibility from as early as 1;6, with sensitivity to discourse factors such as explicit contrast and prior mention emerging first and becoming adult-like by about 3;0. Sensitivity to perceptual factors such as perceptual availability and joint attention emerges slightly later and develops into the school years. Both caregiver speech and language structure play a role in how children’s sensitivity emerges. This early sensitivity to accessibility points to children’s understanding of discourse structure and early stages of theory of mind.


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