On age-related differences in adolescents’ world knowledge-based audience design

Our ability to adapt utterances to the world knowledge of our addressees probably develops in the early teens. This is shown by a new study from the CIVung project.

Adolescence is an important period for cognitive and social development. But research knows quite a little about how our ability to communicate develops during these years. The CIVung project, which is conducted at the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Psychology, specifically investigates the pragmatic development during adolescence. Research results from a partial study within the project are now presented in Royal Society Open Science.

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Caroline Arvidsson and David Pagmar, both PhD students in linguistics, and Julia Uddén, PI for the project, have tested the ability to world knowledge-based audience design in two age groups: 11-12-year-olds and 15-16-year-olds. The test participants had to describe objects to a conversation partner in such a way that the latter understood what it was about and could point out the correct object among several alternatives. Some objects (for example, "Christmas tree") were known to the interlocutor, while others were unknown. The researchers also investigated whether there was any difference between the age groups in whether they thought the interlocutor knew or did not know the names of the various objects.


The older ones adapted their utterances more

The results show that the two age groups had similar beliefs about which objects their interlocutors knew or did not know. However, the older participants were much better than the younger ones at adapting their utterances to the knowledge of their interlocutor. This suggests that there is a discrepancy between being able to estimate what someone knows and being able to adapt what one says based on that estimate. According to the research group, the results of the study indicate that the ability to adapt utterances to the world knowledge of one’s addressee develops between the ages of 11 and 16.

The article is published in Royal Society Open Science:

"When did you stop speaking to yourself? Age-related differences in adolescents’ world knowledge-based audience design" (royalsocietypublishing.org)