Pragmatic enrichment in language processing and development

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Lewis, Shevaun
Phillips, Colin
The goal of language comprehension for humans is not just to decode the semantic content of sentences, but rather to grasp what speakers intend to communicate. To infer speaker meaning, listeners must at minimum assess whether and how the literal meaning of an utterance addresses a question under discussion in the conversation. In cases of implicature, where the speaker intends to communicate more than just the literal meaning, listeners must access additional relevant information in order to understand the intended contribution of the utterance. I argue that the primary challenge for inferring speaker meaning is in identifying and accessing this relevant contextual information. In this dissertation, I integrate evidence from several different types of implicature to argue that both adults and children are able to execute complex pragmatic inferences relatively efficiently, but encounter some difficulty finding what is relevant in context. I argue that the variability observed in processing costs associated with adults' computation of scalar implicatures can be better understood by examining how the critical contextual information is presented in the discourse context. I show that children's oft-cited hyper-literal interpretation style is limited to scalar quantifiers. Even 3-year-olds are adept at understanding indirect requests and "parenthetical" readings of belief reports. Their ability to infer speaker meanings is limited only by their relative inexperience in conversation and lack of world knowledge.