Knowing what a novel word is not: Two-year-olds ‘listen through’ ambiguous adjectives in fluent speech

Document Type


Publication Date





Three studies investigated how 24-month-olds and adults resolve temporary ambiguity in fluent speech when encountering prenominal adjectives potentially interpretable as nouns. Children were tested in a looking-while-listening procedure to monitor the time course of speech processing. In Experiment 1, the familiar and unfamiliar adjectives preceding familiar target nouns were accented or deaccented. Target word recognition was disrupted only when lexically ambiguous adjectives were accented like nouns. Experiment 2 measured the extent of interference experienced by children when interpreting prenominal words as nouns. In Experiment 3, adults used prosodic cues to identify the form class of adjective/noun homophones in string-identical sentences before the ambiguous words were fully spoken. Results show that children and adults use prosody in conjunction with lexical and distributional cues to ‘listen through’ prenominal adjectives, avoiding costly misinterpretation.