Preschoolers infer contrast from adjectives if they can access lexical alternatives

Alexandra HorowitzStanford University
Michael FrankStanford University

Abstract

When speakers use modified noun phrases (e.g. “the long book”), they provide information not only about a salient feature of a single item (that this book is long), but also about implicit contrasts with possible alternatives (books can vary by length: some may be short). We investigate the development of preschoolers’ ability to detect implicit contrasts from speakers’ use of adjectives and make inferences about category structure. In Experiment 1, we found that adults and preschoolers can make contrast inferences from adjective use in a supportive frame, and this ability improves over the preschool years. In Experiment 2, we reduced the cues to contrast and found that adults still inferred implied contrast from adjective use alone, but preschoolers did not. Perhaps the issue for preschoolers was an inability to consider alternatives from explicit descriptions (e.g. bringing to mind “short” from hearing “long”). Experiment 3 tested this hypothesis by reading preschoolers a book containing relevant opposite pairs immediately prior to the task. After reading the book, older 4-year-olds were able to make contrast inferences reliably, suggesting that increasing children’s access to lexical alternatives may boost their ability to make contrast inferences.

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Preschoolers infer contrast from adjectives if they can access lexical alternatives (475 KB)



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