Everyday speech is scatted with filler words, like “umm” and “uhh”, that seem like noise that should be ignored. However, research has suggested that these filler words can actually provide listeners with information about what the speaker will say next. For example, when adults and children hear a hesitation word, they expect that the next word will be one that is difficult for the speaker to describe or one that is new to the conversation. Our research shows that toddlers, like adults, interpret filler words differently depending on who is speaking: if the words are produced by a speaker who is forgetful, toddlers are less likely to make predictions about what will come next (Orena & White, 2015). These findings are striking because they show that young children have a very sophisticated understanding about why disfluencies occur, and they confirm that children’s knowledge of speakers affect their use of subtle speech cues during real-time language processing.
Orena, A.J. & White, K.S. (2015). I forget what that’s called! Children’s on-line processing of disfluencies depends on speaker knowledge. Child Development, 86(6), 1701-1709. doi:10.1111/cdev.12421