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Cognition. 1999 Dec 7;73(2):89-134.

The kindergarten-path effect: studying on-line sentence processing in young children.

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University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA.


A great deal of psycholinguistic research has focused on the question of how adults interpret language in real time. This work has revealed a complex and interactive language processing system capable of rapidly coordinating linguistic properties of the message with information from the context or situation (e.g. Altmann & Steedman, 1988; Britt, 1994; Tanenhaus, Spivey-Knowlton, Eberhard & Sedivy, 1995; Trueswell & Tanenhaus, 1991). In the study of language acquisition, however, surprisingly little is known about how children process language in real time and whether they coordinate multiple sources of information during interpretation. The lack of child research is due in part to the fact that most existing techniques for studying language processing have relied upon the skill of reading, an ability that young children do not have or are only beginning to acquire. We present here results from a new method for studying children's moment-by-moment language processing abilities, in which a head-mounted eye-tracking system was used to monitor eye movements as participants responded to spoken instructions. The results revealed systematic differences in how children and adults process spoken language: Five Year Olds did not take into account relevant discourse/pragmatic principles when resolving temporary syntactic ambiguities, and showed little or no ability to revise initial parsing commitments. Adults showed sensitivity to these discourse constraints at the earliest possible stages of processing, and were capable of revising incorrect parsing commitments. Implications for current models of sentence processing are discussed.

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