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The Development of Preschoolers’ Appreciation of Communicative Ambiguity


  • Elizabeth S. Nilsen,

  • Susan A. Graham

  • This research was supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Canada Research Chairs Program, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation awarded to S.G. and a SSHRC SRG awarded to E.N. We thank the parents and children who participated in the study. The authors also thank Melanie Khu, Natasha Nickel, Kim Tan-McNeil, and Claudia Bustos for their assistance with this research. Data from this study were presented at the Society for Research in Child Development 2008 Biennial Meeting.

concerning this article should be addressed to Elizabeth S. Nilsen, University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, ON, N2L 3G1. Electronic mail may be sent to


Using a longitudinal design, preschoolers’ appreciation of a listener’s knowledge of the location of a hidden sticker after the listener was provided with an ambiguous or unambiguous description was assessed. Preschoolers (= 34) were tested at 3 time points, each 6 months apart (4, 4½, and 5 years). Eye gaze measures demonstrated that preschoolers were sensitive to communicative ambiguity, even when the situation was unambiguous from their perspective. Preschoolers’ explicit evaluations of ambiguity were characterized by an initial appreciation of message clarity followed by an appreciation of message ambiguity. Children’s inhibitory control skills at 4 years old related to their explicit detection of ambiguity at later ages. Results are discussed in terms of the developmental progression of preschoolers’ awareness of communicative ambiguity.