What’s New to You? Preschoolers’ Partner-Specific Online Processing of Disfluency

Si On Yoon, Kyong Sun Jin, Sarah Brown-Schmidt, Cynthia L. Fisher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Speech disfluencies (e.g., “Point to thee um turtle”) can signal that a speaker is about to refer to something difficult to name. In two experiments, we found evidence that 4-year-olds, like adults, flexibly interpret a particular partner’s disfluency based on their estimate of that partner’s knowledge, derived from the preceding conversation. In entrainment trials, children established partner-specific shared knowledge of names for tangram pictures with one or two adult interlocutors. In each test trial, an adult named one of two visible tangrams either fluently or disfluently while children’s eye-movements were monitored. We manipulated speaker knowledge in the test trials. In Experiment 1, the test-trial speaker was the same speaker from entrainment or a naïve experimenter; in Experiment 2, the test-trial speaker had been one of the child’s partners in entrainment and had seen half of the tangrams (either animal or vehicle tangrams). When hearing disfluent expressions, children looked more at a tangram that was unfamiliar from the speaker’s perspective; this systematic disfluency effect disappeared in Experiment 1 when the speaker was entirely naïve, and depended on each speaker’s entrainment experience in Experiment 2. These findings show that 4-year-olds can keep track of two different partners’ knowledge states, and use this information to determine what should be difficult for a particular partner to name, doing so efficiently enough to guide online interpretation of disfluent speech.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number612601
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - Jan 8 2021


  • common ground
  • disfluency
  • eye-tracking
  • partner-specificity
  • pragmatic inference

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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