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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Child-directed Listening: How Caregiver Inference Enables Children's Early Verbal Communication


How do adults understand children's speech? Children's productions over the course of language development often bear little resemblance to typical adult pronunciations, yet caregivers nonetheless reliably recover meaning from them. Here, we employ a suite of Bayesian models of spoken word recognition to understand how adults overcome the noisiness of child language, showing that communicative success between children and adults relies heavily on adult inferential processes. By evaluating competing models on phonetically-annotated child language from the Providence corpus, we show that adults' recovered meanings are best predicted by prior expectations fitted specifically to the child language environment, rather than to typical adult-adult language. After quantifying the contribution of this "child-directed listening" over developmental time, we discuss the consequences for theories of language acquisition, as well as the implications for commonly-used methods for assessing children's linguistic proficiency.

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