Clashes of inference and perspective explain why children sometimes lose the plot in conversation
Children who suddenly seem to lose the thread of an otherwise obvious conversation often do so because they can’t combine two important communication skills until surprisingly late in their development, researchers have found.
Research by academics from the University of Cambridge found that children as young as five or six years old have trouble reconciling inferences and perspective. It means that children may have trouble “reading between the lines” of a seemingly simple conversation with an adult if their frames of reference are different. This is especially true if they know something the adult does not, or vice versa, for example if they are talking on a video call or on the phone, or if they are in different rooms.
For example, children may find it difficult to process a simple request, such as, “give me the blue hat,” in a situation where the speaker knows which hat they mean, but the child can see another hat that fits the description better. suits . Combining their understanding of what the speaker can see with the challenge of identifying the object most clearly implied by the request is a skill that children seem to acquire surprisingly late in their development.
This finding changes our understanding of how children master “implicatures,” inferences we make in conversations when people mean more than they say.
As adults, we do this constantly and without noticing, in order to understand and respond appropriately when we talk to others. For example, if someone is asked what they ate for lunch and replies, “a sandwich,” the listener might reasonably assume that this all they had for lunch, although technically they might have had more. Likewise, after hearing the statement, “your cat and dog have been to the vet, but the cat is fine,” understanding the implicature may mean that we rightly fear for the dog’s fate.
Children begin to understand implications around the age of three. However, the new study shows that this is only true if they share the speaker’s visual perspective. If what they can see conflicts with the speaker, even a child twice that age may struggle to formulate an appropriate response.
dr. Elspeth Wilson, of the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, said: “Generally speaking, we find that children can understand more at a younger age than we thought, but certain conversational situations are an exception. A five-year-old can draw a conclusion and taking another’s perspective apart, but when you combine both, it becomes too challenging. Most of the kids in our study really struggled with it.”
“As parents or teachers, we need to remember that when kids don’t understand what adults mean, it’s not just because they don’t understand the words. Sometimes the context of a conversation is too complicated and kids struggle to draw the inferences they need. “
The research focused on a particular group of implicatures, known as “quantity implicatures,” which arise when a speaker gives limited information under the assumption that the listener will understand the rest.
To test how children deal with these inferences and whether they take into account the speaker’s visual perspective, the researchers conducted an experiment in which 33 five- and six-year-olds had a conversation with a puppet manipulated by an adult. The child and adult sat on opposite sides of a display case with double-sided photo cards. The doll ‘asked’ the child to choose cards that depict certain objects, for example by saying, “Give me the card with apples on it”.
However, there was a catch. While both the child and the doll could always see a card with the requested image along with something else, in some cases the child could also see a better match that the doll couldn’t. In the example above, this could mean that the child can also see a card that: nothing but apples, while both the child and the doll could see one with apples and bananas. From the speaker’s limited perspective, “the map of apples” was a good description for a map they could see. The child also had to take into account what the doll could not see, and avoid choosing the card with nothing but apples on it.
Of the 33 children, 29 failed this test, although they did well in other scenarios where implicature and perspective taking were tested separately. When adults completed the same test, only nine out of 36 failed. A second, similar follow-up experiment with 25 more children yielded similar results.
“It’s possible that children do their best to integrate implicature and perspective-taking, but struggle to reconcile them,” Wilson said. “In our experiment, they may have realized that the implication of the request clashed with the reality of what the speaker could see, but then they responded with the wrong strategy — trying to correct the situation on behalf of the speaker, for example.”
These kinds of child development findings may ultimately be important for clinical professionals when assessing their pragmatic skills. The fact that combining implicatures and taking perspectives is still a challenge for children as young as five or six years old also means that primary school teachers can play a role in helping younger learners develop these important skills, through through classroom dialogue.
“The more we understand about children’s linguistic and communicative development, the better we can support that development at school and at home,” Wilson added.
The research was published in Language learning and development†
Elspeth Wilson et al, Taking the role of perspective in the implications of quantity in children, Language learning and development (2022). DOI: 10.1080/15475441.22022.2050236
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