Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award

Winter 1-1-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Lori Markson


This dissertation explores children's understanding of the conventionality of language, the notion that shared knowledge of the meanings of linguistic symbols enables communication using those symbols. Three studies investigate whether monolingual children recognize that different speakers share knowledge of lexical conventions, in this case the labels for objects, independent of children's own knowledge of those labels. Further, children's ability to use evidence of shared conventional knowledge when reasoning about communicative interactions is tested using a novel third-party communication task. Results indicate that three-year-old children track consistent labeling of novel objects across different speakers, and infer underlying shared knowledge of object labels across consistent speakers. Further, under supportive conditions, three-year-old children infer that inconsistent speakers know different labels for the same object, overriding their own default bias to assume that everyone will use the same label for an object when given evidence to think otherwise. Finally, four-year-old children can reason about communicative interactions in an unfamiliar language, recognizing that a bilingual speaker intends to direct her speech toward a particular monolingual speaker, depending on which language she uses: e.g., toward another Spanish speaker when speaking in Spanish). This result suggests that four-year-olds understand that shared knowledge of a particular language enables communication between those speakers, and recognize the communicative efficacy of an unfamiliar language. Three-year-old children's difficulty with this communicative task suggests that children's conception of conventionality and its role in communication becomes enriched across early childhood.


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