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Abstract

Theories of language acquisition have highlighted the importance of adult speakers as active participants in children’s language learning. However, in many communities children are reported to be directly engaged by their caregivers only rarely (Lieven, 1994). This observation raises the possibility that these children learn language from observing, rather than participating in, communicative exchanges. In this paper, we quantify naturally occurring language input in one community where directed interaction with children has been reported to be rare (Yucatec Mayan). We compare this input to the input heard by children growing up in large families in the United States, and we consider how directed and overheard input relate to Mayan children’s later vocabulary. In Study 1, we demonstrate that 1-year-old Mayan children do indeed hear a smaller proportion of total input in directed speech than children from the US. In Study 2, we show that for Mayan (but not US) children, there are great increases in the proportion of directed input that children receive between 13 and 35 months. In Study 3, we explore the validity of using videotaped data in a Mayan village. In Study 4, we demonstrate that word types directed to Mayan children from adults at 24 months (but not word types overheard by children or word types directed from other children) predict later vocabulary. These findings suggest that adult talk directed to children is important for early word learning, even in communities where much of children’s early language input comes from overheard speech. A video abstract of this article can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgA4CxmBTNk&feature=youtu.be