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Learning speaker- and addressee-centered demonstratives in Ticuna

Amalia Skilton
Cornell University

Friday, November 19, 2021
Noon
Lattimore 513

Abstract

The event poster.

Children acquiring English, Turkish, and Mandarin produce demonstrative words, such as this/that and here/there, very early in development – but do not display adult-like use or comprehension of the items until very late (Clark & Sengul 1978, Tanz 1980, Kuntay & Ozyurek 2006).  Children’s late mastery of demonstratives is typically attributed to their cognitive bias toward egocentrism, predicting that addressee-proximal demonstratives (that near you) will pose an even greater challenge for learning than the speaker-proximal (this near me) and speaker-distal (that far from me) demonstratives of English.

To test this prediction, I investigate the learning of addressee-proximal vs. speaker-centered (proximal and distal) demonstratives by 45 children, aged 1;0 to 4;11, acquiring Ticuna (isolate; Brazil, Colombia, Peru). Within this sample, no age group of children displayed adult-like use of the Ticuna addressee-proximal demonstrative. One- and two-year-olds did not produce the addressee-proximal at all, instead relying exclusively on speaker-centered demonstratives. Three- and four-year-olds did produce the addressee-proximal, but their production remained non-adult-like: they used the addressee-proximal less than adults, and speaker-centered items more. The results support egocentrism as an explanation for the late mastery of demonstratives, and indicate that this cognitive bias can inhibit the learning of even extremely high-frequency words.