Toddlers use speech disfluencies to predict speakers’ referential intentions


Celeste Kidd, Brain & Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester, Meliora Hall RC Box 270268, Rochester, NY 14627, USA; e-mail:


The ability to infer the referential intentions of speakers is a crucial part of learning a language. Previous research has uncovered various contextual and social cues that children may use to do this. Here we provide the first evidence that children also use speech disfluencies to infer speaker intention. Disfluencies (e.g. filled pauses ‘uh’ and ‘um’) occur in predictable locations, such as before infrequent or discourse-new words. We conducted an eye-tracking study to investigate whether young children can make use of this distributional information in order to predict a speaker’s intended referent. Our results reveal that young children (ages 2;4 to 2;8) reliably attend to speech disfluencies early in lexical development and are able to use disfluencies in online comprehension to infer speaker intention in advance of object labeling. Our results from two groups of younger children (ages 1;8 to 2;2 and 1;4 to 1;8) suggest that this ability emerges around age 2.