Preschoolers are sensitive to the speaker's knowledge when learning proper names

Unobservable properties that are specific to individuals, such as their proper names, can only be known by people who are familiar with those individuals. Do young children utilize this “familiarity principle” when learning language? Experiment 1 tested whether forty-eight 2- to 4-year-old children were able to determine the referent of a proper name such as “Jessie” based on the knowledge that the speaker was familiar with one individual but unfamiliar with the other. Even 2-year-olds successfully identified Jessie as the individual with whom the speaker was familiar. Experiment 2 examined whether children appreciate this principle at a general level, as do adults, or whether this knowledge may be specific to certain word-learning situations. To test this, forty-eight 3- to 5-year-old children were given the converse of the task in Experiment 1—they were asked to determine the individual with whom the speaker was familiar based on the speaker’s knowledge of an individual’s proper name. Only 5-year-olds reliably succeeded at this task, suggesting that a general understanding of the familiarity principle is a relatively late developmental accomplishment
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