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Young children follow pointing over words in interpreting acts of reference


Susanne Grassmann, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103, Leipzig, Germany; e-mail:


Adults refer young children’s attention to things in two basic ways: through the use of pointing (and other deictic gestures) and words (and other linguistic conventions). In the current studies, we referred young children (2- and 4-year-olds) to things in conflicting ways, that is, by pointing to one object while indicating linguistically (in some way) a different object. In Study 1, a novel word was put into competition with a pointing gesture in a mutual exclusivity paradigm; that is, with a known and a novel object in front of the child, the adult pointed to the known object (e.g. a cup) while simultaneously requesting ‘the modi’. In contrast to the findings of Jaswal and Hansen (2006), children followed almost exclusively the pointing gesture. In Study 2, when a known word was put into competition with a pointing gesture – the adult pointed to the novel object but requested ‘the car’– children still followed the pointing gesture. In Study 3, the referent of the pointing gesture was doubly contradicted by the lexical information – the adult pointed to a known object (e.g. a cup) but requested ‘the car’– in which case children considered pointing and lexical information equally strong. Together, these findings suggest that in disambiguating acts of reference, young children at both 2 and 4 years of age rely most heavily on pragmatic information (e.g. in a pointing gesture), and only secondarily on lexical conventions and principles.