CoGCI: “Ich sehe was, was du nicht siehst” – Common ground and contrastive information in children’s and adults’ reference resolution

Principal investigators:
Prof. Dr. Barbara Höhle
Prof. Dr. Isabell Wartenburger
Universität Potsdam

The project was featured by the news office of Potsdam University in September 2015. Link to the article.

Project description:
The meaning of a linguistic utterance does not only depend on the lexico-semantic content and its syntactic structure but also on the speakers intention. In human communication, common ground knowledge and the presence of alternatives in the common ground efficiently guide the choice of referring expressions of the speaker. For the hearer an utterance with a specific linguistic form can have different interpretations and the hearer must regularly integrate pragmatic principles to determine which of the possible interpretations has been intended by the speaker.
There is a large body of experimental research showing that referring expressions mostly are optimally tailored by the speaker to provide sufficient but no redundant information to uniquely identify a referent. However, over- and under-informative utterances still occur in communicative settings; they lead to higher processing costs and are judged as less appropriate than optimal utterances. The use of experimental approaches to better understand the mechanisms underlying pragmatic processing is a relatively recent enterprise. Hence, the online time-course of the interaction of lexical-semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic processes is still under debate. Time-sensitive online measures of linguistic processing such as the visual-world eye-tracking paradigm or event related brain potentials provide fine-grained insights how the (automatic) interpretation of utterances unfolds over time. Moreover, these methods can be applied to adults and very young children alike to shed light on the development and the underlying common mechanisms.
This project will investigate how common ground knowledge and the presence of contrastive information affect reference resolution during the comprehension of utterances. In line with the goals of, the project will pursuit an experimental approach in different populations, namely 3 to 5 year old children and adults. The overall goal of our project is to understand when and under which conditions pragmatic information interacts with syntactic and lexical-semantic information in language comprehension, when this competence is developed in childhood, and if and how the understanding of pragmatic information depends on theory of mind capacities.