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Vision shapes language: Referential communication in blind, sighted and newly-sighted individuals

How does visual perception affect the way we communicate? To address this question, this research project will compare the referential abilities of blind, sighted and newly-sighted children, as well as sighted adults.

Children playing in the street. Foto.
Photo: Shlomit Ben Ami

About the project

This research project aims to investigate the contribution of visual processes to verbal communication; in particular, the act of referring to the physical world around us.

In order to investigate this question, the referential abilities of sighted and blind individuals will be studied independently and comparatively. The project will also investigate the referential abilities of a third and unique population, the Prakash children of Delhi: newly-sighted children who gained vision after they acquired language.

Since language acquisition takes place either with or without vision, studying the communicative development of newly-sighted children will give us an extraordinary opportunity: to isolate the contribution of visual processes to the development of referential communication. Our first research question is therefore unprecedented: how do the communicative abilities of blind children change once they gain vision?


The project will combine three research strands: blind, sighted and newly-sighted communication, and compare the referential abilities of school children with those of adults. The main focus of the three research strands will be the pragmatic process of 'audience design' in referential communication, or how speakers tailor their referential expressions to the needs of their interlocutors. To investigate this question, we will use referential communication tasks in which pairs of participants interact with one another to arrange various objects in a display.


Our main interest in this type of task is to see how speakers refer to the different objects in the display, and whether their choice of referential expression reveals perspective taking (e.g., by avoiding ambiguity). The speakers' eye-movements will be recorded in order to investigate how visual processes affect the generation of referential expressions. We will also adopt a longitudinal perspective, following the pragmatic development the same group of Prakash children over a period of 3 years.




This project is funded by a FRIPRO grant from the Research Council of Norway under the FRIHUMSAM program (275505).

Collaborating partners

Professor Pawan Sinha, Director of Project Prakash and head of the Sinha Lab at MIT.

Professor Julian Jara-Ettinger, head of the Computation and Cognitive Development Lab at Yale University.

Published Dec. 20, 2018 4:10 PM - Last modified Mar. 27, 2020 10:00 AM


Detailed list of participants