Learning the meanings of words might appear to be a simple task: An adult names an object; the child, hearing the name in association with the object, determines that the name refers to the object. But consider, the following situation: An individual says, "Where is the mandrel?" She picks up one object, examines it with a frown, then puts it down. She picks up a second object, her face brightens, and she says "Here it is!" If word learning requires nothing more than associations between words and objects, people should interpret "mandrel" as a label for the first object. However, neither adults nor young children make this error. Instead, they make inferences about the speaker's referential intent, using cues such as facial expression and eye gaze, to identify which entity the speaker wishes to label. With funding from the Linguistics Program, the Developmental and Learning Sciences Program and the Office of International Science and Engineering, Dr. Catharine Echols will examine the role of referential intent in word learning. Studies will assess variability in the availability and form of referential intent cues, children's use of the cues, and the possible consequences of such variability for language learning. Naturalistic observations of conversations between mothers and children and experimental procedures will be used. The studies will be carried out across two languages and cultures, English in the U.S. and Brazilian Portuguese in Brazil, and will examine the effects of socio-economic status within each country. Additional studies will test similar questions with deaf and hearing children whose parents are either deaf or hearing. Dr. Richard P. Meier, an expert on the acquisition of American Sign Language, is a collaborator on the project. The project will provide important new knowledge about the language learning process, and it has valuable applications. Children from economically deprived backgrounds are at risk for delays in language learning, and delays also are evident in the language development of deaf children of hearing parents. A reduced availability of cues to referential intent-or a reduced capacity to use any available cues-could contribute to these delays. Consequently, the findings of this project could be used to improve early intervention programs.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Joan Maling
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University of Texas Austin
United States
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