What role does contextual information play in children’s early word comprehension? Using an inter-modal preferential looking task, we investigated how different background contexts influence children’s looking times before and after an image has been named. Prior to the experiment, early comprehension of words was assessed using parental questionnaires. Typicality of objects against different backgrounds was pre-assessed in typicality ratings with adults. In the experiments with the children, 15- and 18-month-olds were shown stimuli depicting pairs of objects or pairs of animals: both stimuli appeared against a neutral background, a typical background or an atypical background. Half way through each testing trial, one of the two stimuli was named. It was predicted that children’s looking behaviour at the named target would be affected by the naming event and the background context, with children devoting longer time to inspect named images in atypical backgrounds than in typical backgrounds. We further anticipated that background effects would be stronger for younger children as compared to older children. These predictions were confirmed insofar as naming effects in 15-month-olds’ varied with background condition, whereas 18-month-olds showed similar effects of naming across all background conditions. However, unexpectedly, 15-month-olds showed a naming effect in atypical and neutral backgrounds, but not in typical backgrounds. Methodological issues concerning the use of backgrounds in inter-modal preferential looking tasks, and the implications of the role of background context for children’s early word comprehension are discussed
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