Metacognitive developments in word learning: Mutual exclusivity and theory of mind

Cornelia Gollek, Martin Doherty

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This study examines the flexibility with which children can use pragmatic information to determine word reference. Extensive previous research shows that children choose an unfamiliar object as referent of a novel name: the disambiguation effect. We added a pragmatic cue indirectly indicating a familiar object as intended referent. In three experiments, preschool children’s ability to take this cue into account was specifically associated with false belief understanding and the ability to produce familiar alternative names (e.g., rabbit, animal) for a given referent. The association was predicted by the hypothesis that all three tasks require an understanding of perspective (linguistic or mental). The findings indicate that perspectival understanding is required to take into account indirect pragmatic information to suspend the disambiguation effect. Implications for lexical principles and socio-pragmatic theories of word learning are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-69
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date22 Apr 2016
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2016


  • word learning
  • mutual exclusivity bias
  • disambiguation effect
  • theory of mind
  • metacognition

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