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Learning words from speakers with false beliefs*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 June 2016

Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, University of Delaware
Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, University of Delaware
Department of Physical Therapy, University of Delaware
Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions
Address for correspondence: Anna Papafragou, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Delaware, Newark DE 19716. e-mail:


During communication, hearers try to infer the speaker's intentions to be able to understand what the speaker means. Nevertheless, whether (and how early) preschoolers track their interlocutors' mental states is still a matter of debate. Furthermore, there is disagreement about how children's ability to consult a speaker's belief in communicative contexts relates to their ability to track someone's belief in non-communicative contexts. Here, we study young children's ability to successfully acquire a word from a speaker with a false belief; we also assess the same children's success on a traditional false belief attribution task. We show that the ability to consult the epistemic state of a speaker during word learning develops between the ages of three and five. We also show that false belief understanding in word-learning contexts proceeds similarly to standard belief-attribution contexts when the tasks are equated. Our data offer evidence for the development of mind-reading abilities during language acquisition.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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This research was supported in part by NSF grant BCS-0641105 to A. P. and by Science and Engineering Scholarships awarded by the University of Delaware Undergraduate Research Office to C. F. and M. C. The authors wish to thank Laurie Yarzab, Kendra Goodwin, Taraneh Mojaverian, Alice Ding, Yun Choi, Angela Yung, Dimitris Skordos, and Ann Bunger for their help.


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