Turkish- and English-speaking children display sensitivity to perceptual context in referring expressions they produce in speech and gesture

Speakers choose a particular expression based on many factors, including availability of the referent in the perceptual context. We examined whether, when expressing referents, monolingual English- and Turkish-speaking children: (1) are sensitive to perceptual context, (2) express this sensitivity in language-specific ways, and (3) use co-speech gestures to specify referents that are underspecified. We also explored the mechanisms underlying children's sensitivity to perceptual context. Children described short vignettes to an experimenter under two conditions: The characters in the vignettes were present in the perceptual context (perceptual context); the characters were absent (no perceptual context). Children routinely used nouns in the no perceptual context condition, but shifted to pronouns (English-speaking children) or omitted arguments (Turkish-speaking children) in the perceptual context condition. Turkish-speaking children used underspecified referents more frequently than English-speaking children in the perceptual context condition; however, they compensated for the difference by using gesture to specify the forms. Gesture thus gives children learning structurally different languages a way to achieve comparable levels of specification while at the same time adhering to the referential expressions dictated by their language.
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