Skip to main content Accessibility help

Orienting to third-party conversations*



Children as young as two years of age are able to learn novel object labels through overhearing, even when distracted by an attractive toy (Akhtar, 2005). The present studies varied the information provided about novel objects and examined which elements (i.e. novel versus neutral information and labels versus facts) toddlers chose to monitor, and what type of information they were more likely to learn. In Study 1, participants learned only the novel label and the novel fact containing a novel label. In Study 2, only girls learned the novel label. Neither girls nor boys learned the novel fact. In both studies, analyses of children's gaze patterns suggest that children who learned the new information strategically oriented to the third-party conversation.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Carmen Martínez-Sussmann, Psychology Department, University of California Santa Cruz, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95064. e-mail:


Hide All

We would like to thank all the families that participated and the following research assistants who helped with various aspects of data collection and coding: Lauren DiMaggio, Justin Henderson, Lily Hendlin, Rubina Jetley, Lyssa Kaehler, Alexandra Koenig, Ronit Moreh, Yumiko Nakai, Jessica Polk-Berkowitz, Marisa Raditsch, Nicol Ruber, Katie Scherrman, Alex Smookler, Rebecca Spence, Melissa Sussmann, Tiffany Teh, Kristin Weisler and Hannah Williams. Special thanks to Barbara Rogoff for helpful comments on a previous version of the manuscript. This research was supported by a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Pre-doctoral Training Grant (9 T32 HD046423-07) to the first author and faculty research funds granted by the University of California, Santa Cruz to the second author.



Hide All
Akhtar, N. (2004). Contexts of early word learning. In Hall, D. G. & Waxman, S. (eds), Weaving a lexicon, 485507. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Akhtar, N. (2005). The robustness of learning through overhearing. Developmental Science 8, 199209.
Akhtar, N., Jipson, J. & Callanan, M. (2001). Learning words through overhearing. Child Development 72, 416–30.
Anglin, J. M. (1993). Vocabulary development: A morphological analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Serial No. 238, 58, 1165.
Barton, M. E. & Tomasello, M. (1991). Joint attention and conversation in mother–infant–sibling triads. Child Development 62, 517–29.
Bloom, L. (1998). Language acquisition in its developmental context. In Kuhn, D. & Siegler, R. S. (eds), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 2. Cognition, perception, and language, 309370. New York: Wiley.
Brown, P. (1998). Conversational structure and language acquisition: The role of repetition in Tzeltal. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 8, 197221.
Csibra, G. & Gergely, G. (2006). Social learning and social cognition: The case for pedagogy. In Munakata, Y. & Johnson, M. H. (eds), Processes of change in brain and cognitive development. Attention and performance XXI, 249–74. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
de León, L. (1998). The emergent participant: Interactive patterns in the socialization of Tzotzil (Mayan) infants. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 8, 131–61.
Diesendruck, G. & Markson, L. (2001). Children's avoidance of lexical overlap: A pragmatic account. Developmental Psychology 37, 630–41.
Dunn, J. & Shatz, M. (1989). Becoming a conversationalist despite (or because of) having an older sibling. Child Development 60, 399410.
Fenson, L., Dale, P. S., Reznick, J. S., Bates, E., Thal, D. J. & Pethick, S. J. (1994). Variability in early communicative development. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 59(5, Serial No. 242).
Fenson, L., Pethick, S., Renda, C., Cox, J. L., Dale, P. S. & Reznick, J. S. (2000). Short form versions of the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories. Applied Psycholinguistics 21, 95–115.
Floor, P. & Akhtar, N. (2006). Can 18-month-old infants learn words by listening in on conversations? Infancy 9, 327–39.
Herold, K. H. & Akhtar, N. (2008). Imitative learning from a third-party interaction: Relations with self-recognition and perspective taking. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 101, 114–23.
Huttenlocher, J., Haight, W., Bryk, A., Seltzer, M. & Lyons, T. (1991). Early vocabulary growth: Relation to language input and gender. Developmental Psychology 27, 236–48.
Koenig, M. A. & Harris, P. L. (2005). Preschoolers mistrust ignorant and inaccurate speakers. Child Development 76, 1261–77.
Lieven, E. V. M. (1994). Crosslinguistic and crosscultural aspects of language addressed to children. In Gallaway, C. & Richards, B. J. (eds), Input and interaction in language acquisition, 5673. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Markson, L. & Bloom, P. (1997). Evidence against a dedicated system for word learning in children. Nature 385, 813–15.
Merriman, W. E., Marazita, J. & Lipko, A. R. (2009). How young children decide whether a word is one they know: Evidence for a gender-related difference. Poster presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.
Morelli, G. A., Rogoff, B. & Angelillo, C. (2003). Cultural variation in young children's access to work or involvement in specialized child-focused activities. International Journal of Behavioral Development 27, 264–74.
Ochs, E. & Schieffelin, B. (1984). Language acquisition and socialization: Three developmental stories. In Shweder, R. & LeVine, R. (eds), Culture theory: Mind, self, and emotion, 276320. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Oshima-Takane, Y. (1988). Children learn from speech not addressed to them: The case of personal pronouns. Journal of Child Language 15, 95–108.
Oshima-Takane, Y., Goodz, E. & Derevensky, J. (1996). Birth order effects on early language development: Do secondborn children learn from overheard speech? Child Development 67, 621–34.
Oviatt, S. L. (1985). Tracing developmental change in language comprehension ability before twelve months of age. Papers and Reports on Child Language Development 24, 8794.
Reznick, J. S. & Goldfield, B. A. (1992). Rapid change in lexical development in comprehension and production. Developmental Psychology 28, 406413.
Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rogoff, B., Paradise, R., Mejia Arauz, R., Correa-Chavez, M. & Angelillo, C. (2003). Firsthand learning through intent participation. Annual Review of Psychology 54, 175203.
Schieffelin, B. B. & Ochs, E. (1986). Language socialization across cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schwartz, R., Behrend, D. & Ransom, A. (2009). Learning words and facts through overhearing. Poster presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.
Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T. & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28, 675735.
Trehub, S. E. & Shenfield, T. (2007). Acquisition of early words from single-word and sentential contexts. Developmental Science 10, 190–98.
Watson-Gegeo, K. A. & Gegeo, D. W. (1986). Calling-out and repeating routines in Kwara'ae children's language socialization. In Schieffelin, B. B. & Ochs, E. (eds), Language socialization across cultures, 1750. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Orienting to third-party conversations*



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.