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Young Word Learners’ Interpretations of Words and Symbolic Gestures Within the Context of Ambiguous Reference


  • Portions of this research were presented at the 2010 International Conference on Infant Studies. We thank all the parents and children who participated. We are grateful to members of the Emory Language and Learning Lab, particularly Maggie Dancel, Ann Marie Finley, Jane Fisher, Anna Heilbrun, and Nassali Mugwanya for their assistance with coding and participant recruitment. We thank Robert Hampton, Lynne Nygaard, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this work. This research was supported by an NSF GRF awarded to SHS and in part by NICHD Grant 5-R03-HD058777-02 awarded to LLN.

concerning this article should be addressed to Sumarga H. Suanda, Department of Psychology, Emory University, 36 Eagle Row, Atlanta, GA 30322. Electronic mail may be sent to


Early in development, many word-learning phenomena generalize to symbolic gestures. The current study explored whether children avoid lexical overlap in the gestural modality, as they do in the verbal modality, within the context of ambiguous reference. Eighteen-month-olds’ interpretations of words and symbolic gestures in a symbol-disambiguation task (Experiment 1) and a symbol-learning task (Experiment 2) were investigated. In Experiment 1 (= 32), children avoided verbal lexical overlap, mapping novel words to unnamed objects; children failed to display this pattern with symbolic gestures. In Experiment 2 (= 32), 18-month-olds mapped both novel words and novel symbolic gestures onto their referents. Implications of these findings for the specialized nature of word learning and the development of lexical overlap avoidance are discussed.

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