Acquiring verbal reference: The interplay of cognitive, linguistic, and general learning capacities

Elena Luchkina*, Sandra Waxman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Verbal reference is the ability to use language to communicate about objects, events, or ideas, even if they are not witnessed directly, such as past events or faraway places. It rests on a three-way link between words, their referents, and mental representations of those referents. A foundational human capacity, verbal reference extends the communicative power of language beyond the here-and-now, enabling access to language-mediated learning and thus fueling cognitive development. In the current review, we consider how and when verbal reference develops. The existing literature suggests that verbal reference emerges around infants’ first birthdays and becomes increasingly robust by their second. In discussing the powerful developmental advantages of acquiring verbal reference we propose that this achievement requires a dynamic interplay among infants’ cognitive and language development, fueled by general learning capacities. We close by describing new research directions, aimed at advancing our understanding of how verbal reference emerges.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101624
JournalInfant Behavior and Development
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • Infancy
  • Language acquisition
  • Verbal reference
  • Word learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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