Sixteen-month-olds comprehend unanchored absent reference

AbstractA nascent understanding of absent reference emerges around 12 months: provided with rich contextual support, infants look and point to the location of a displaced object. When can infants understand absent reference without contextual support? Using a procedure modified from Hendrickson and Sundara (2017), 13- and 16-month-olds first listened to utterances containing familiar target words, while viewing a checkerboard. Then, two objects – a referent and a distractor (e.g., a cup and a shoe) – appeared on the screen. Only 16-month-olds demonstrated a reliable looking preference for the referents, suggesting that listening to the utterances activated their mental images of the referents. These results establish that at 16 months, infants comprehend reference to absent entities without any contextual support.

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