Learning speaker- and addressee-centered demonstratives in Ticuna

Amalia Skilton

Cornell University

Friday, November 19, 2021

Lattimore 513


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.