Whether young infants can exploit sociopragmatic information to interpret new words is a matter of debate. Based on findings and theories from the action interpretation literature, we hypothesized that 12-month-olds should distinguish communicative object-directed actions expressing reference from instrumental object-directed actions indicative of one’s goals, and selectively use the former to identify referents of novel linguistic expressions. This hypothesis was tested across four eye-tracking experiments. Infants watched pairs of unfamiliar objects, one of which was first targeted by either a communicative action (e.g., pointing) or an instrumental action (e.g., grasping) and then labeled with a novel word. As predicted, infants fast-mapped the novel words onto the targeted objects after pointing (Experiments 1 and 4) but not after grasping (Experiment 2) unless the grasping action was preceded by an ostensive signal (Experiment 3). Moreover, whenever infants mapped a novel word onto the object indicated by a communicative action, they tended to map a different novel word onto the distractor object, displaying a mutual exclusivity effect. This reliance on nonverbal action interpretation in the disambiguation of novel words indicates that sociopragmatic inferences about reference likely supplement associative and statistical learning mechanisms from the outset of word learning.

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Competing Interests: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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