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Turn-taking, timing, and planning in early language acquisition*

  • MARISA CASILLAS (a1), SUSAN C. BOBB (a2) and EVE V. CLARK (a3)


Young children answer questions with longer delays than adults do, and they don't reach typical adult response times until several years later. We hypothesized that this prolonged pattern of delay in children's timing results from competing demands: to give an answer, children must understand a question while simultaneously planning and initiating their response. Even as children get older and more efficient in this process, the demands on them increase because their verbal responses become more complex. We analyzed conversational question–answer sequences between caregivers and their children from ages 1;8 to 3;5, finding that children (1) initiate simple answers more quickly than complex ones, (2) initiate simple answers quickly from an early age, and (3) initiate complex answers more quickly as they grow older. Our results suggest that children aim to respond quickly from the start, improving on earlier-acquired answer types while they begin to practice later-acquired, slower ones.



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This research was supported by a National Science Foundation dissertation grant to MC, an ERC Advanced Grant to Stephen C. Levinson (269484-INTERACT), a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Göttingen to SCB, and by the Freiburg Centre for Advanced Study to EVC. We are grateful to Isaac Bleaman, Annette D'Onofrio, Anna Garbier, Edward King, and Anke Niessen for their careful phonetic measurements. We are also greatly indebted to Herbert H. Clark, Elma Hilbrink, and Stephen C. Levinson for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.



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