In this dissertation, I examined the development of preschoolers’ use of a speaker’s vocal affect to guide their understanding of referential situations. Across all experiments, children’s eye gaze was measured as an index of their underlying interpretive processes.
The first set of experiments examined 5-year-olds’ use of vocal affect to understand the referential intentions of a speaker. Across three experiments, differences in 5-year-olds’ use of vocal affect across multiple contexts (i.e., ambiguous: two same category referents vs. unambiguous: only one linguistically defined referent) and valence types (i.e., positive vs. negative) were investigated to determine whether vocal affect might help children identify a linguistically ambiguous referent or speed the detection of a linguistically unambiguous referent. Results indicated that 5-year-olds use both positive and negative vocal affect to resolve referential ambiguity. Further, when 5-year-olds were provided with unambiguous contexts, negative, but not positive vocal affect altered children’s eye gaze early in the utterance (i.e., prenoun).
Second, I examined whether 4- and 5-year-olds could use vocal affect to learn new words. Results indicated that both 4- and 5-year-olds’ eye gaze reflected the use of both positive and negative vocal affect to map novel labels to novel objects. When 5-year-olds completed extension and generalization tasks, negative but not positive vocal affect played a role in children’s ability to learn new words.
Finally, I examined whether 3- and 5-year-olds can use a speaker’s vocal affect to match the face of the speaker. Eye gaze results indicated that both 3- and 5-year-olds could use a speaker’s vocal affect to find her matching emotional face. However, there were significant differences across valence types in terms of timing. Specifically, children’s eye gaze reflected an earlier use of negative compared to positive vocal affect. However, when children were asked to explicitly locate the matching face (i.e., through pointing) only 5-year-olds displayed this ability.
The findings from this dissertation demonstrate that preschoolers can use a speaker’s vocal affect as a cue to referential intent. Furthermore, when provided with negative vocal affect children were not only more accurate, but were able to use this information earlier in the utterance.