Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-tn8tq Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-22T20:11:35.921Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The role of perceptual availability and discourse context in young children's question answering*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 November 2010

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
University of Manchester, Max Planck Child Study Center, Manchester, United Kingdom
University of Manchester, Max Planck Child Study Center, Manchester, United Kingdom and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
Address for correspondence: Dorothé Salomo, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, P.O. Box 310, 6500 AH Nijmegen, The Netherlands. e-mail:


Three- and four-year-old children were asked predicate-focus questions (‘What's X doing?’) about a scene in which an agent performed an action on a patient. We varied: (i) whether (or not) the preceding discourse context, which established the patient as given information, was available for the questioner; and (ii) whether (or not) the patient was perceptually available to the questioner when she asked the question. The main finding in our study differs from those of previous studies since it suggests that children are sensitive to the perceptual context at an earlier age than they are to previous discourse context if they need to take the questioner's perspective into account. Our finding indicates that, while children are in principle sensitive to both factors, young children rely on perceptual availability when a conflict arises.

Brief Research Report
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



We thank Angela Loose and Jana Jurkat for their help collecting the data, and Roger Mundry for statistical guidance. We are grateful to Leipzig kindergarten directors and to the children who participated in our study.



Ariel, M. (1988). Referring and accessibility. Journal of Linguistics 24, 6587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Campbell, A. L., Brooks, P. & Tomasello, M. (2000). Factors affecting young children's use of pronouns as referring expressions. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 43, 1337–49.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Chafe, W. L. (1976). Givenness, contrastiveness, definiteness, subjects, topics, and point of view. In Li, C. N. (ed.), Subject and topic, 2555. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Gundel, J. K., Hedberg, N. & Zacharski, R. (1993). Cognitive status and the form of refering expressions in discourse. Language 69(2), 274307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kiefer, F. (1988). On the pragmatics of anwers. In Meyer, M. (ed.), Questions and Questioning, 255–79. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter.Google Scholar
Matthews, D., Theakston, A., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2006). The effect of perceptual availability and prior discourse on young children's use of referring expressions. Applied Psycholinguistics 27, 403422.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Moll, H. & Tomasello, M. (2006). Level 1 perspective-taking at 24 months of age. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 24, 603613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
O'Neill, D. (1996). Two-year-old children's sensitivity to a parent's knowledge state when making requests. Child Development 67, 659–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Prince, E. F. (1981). Toward a taxonomy of given–new information. In Cole, P. (ed.), Radical pragmatics, 223–55. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Salomo, D., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2010). Young children's sensitivity to new and given information when answering predicate-focus questions. Applied Psycholinguitics 31(1), 101115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Skarabela, B. & Allen, S. E. M. (2002). The role of joint attention in argument realization in child Inuktitut. Proceedings of the Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development 26, 620–30.Google Scholar
Wittek, A. & Tomasello, M. (2005). Young children's sensitivity to listener knowledge and perceptual context in choosing referring expressions. Applied Psycholinguistics 26, 541–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar