In the journal Psychological Science (11/9) last month: “Preschoolers Flexibly Adapt to Linguistic Input in a Noisy Channel” by Daniel Yurovsky (Univ. of Chicago) & Sarah Case & Michael C. Frank (Stanford Univ.):
Abstract: Because linguistic communication is inherently noisy and uncertain, adult language comprehenders integrate bottom-up cues from speech perception with top-down expectations about what speakers are likely to say. Further, in line with the predictions of ideal-observer models, past results have shown that adult comprehenders flexibly adapt how much they rely on these two kinds of cues in proportion to their changing reliability. Do children also show evidence of flexible, expectation-based language comprehension? We presented preschoolers with ambiguous utterances that could be interpreted in two different ways, depending on whether the children privileged perceptual input or top-down expectations. Across three experiments, we manipulated the reliability of both their perceptual input and their expectations about the speaker’s intended meaning. As predicted by noisy-channel models of speech processing, results showed that 4- and 5-year-old — but perhaps not younger — children flexibly adjusted their interpretations as cues changed in reliability.
Of course, there has to be some point at which kids develop those top-down expectations, which require socio-cultural experience. Everybody notices little kids’ deficiencies in socio-cultural knowledge, but it continues to amaze me how much stuff they manage to pick up.