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Cogn Psychol. 2004 Nov;49(3):238-99.

The developing constraints on parsing decisions: the role of lexical-biases and referential scenes in child and adult sentence processing.

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Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 1136 William James Hall, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


Two striking contrasts currently exist in the sentence processing literature. First, whereas adult readers rely heavily on lexical information in the generation of syntactic alternatives, adult listeners in world-situated eye-gaze studies appear to allow referential evidence to override strong countervailing lexical biases (Tanenhaus, Spivey-Knowlton, Eberhard, and Sedivy, 1995). Second, in contrast to adults, children in similar listening studies fail to use this referential information and appear to rely exclusively on verb biases or perhaps syntactically based parsing principles (Trueswell, Sekerina, Hill, and Logrip, 1999). We explore these contrasts by fully crossing verb bias and referential manipulations in a study using the eye-gaze listening technique with adults (Experiment 1) and five-year-olds (Experiment 2). Results indicate that adults combine lexical and referential information to determine syntactic choice. Children rely exclusively on verb bias in their ultimate interpretation. However, their eye movements reveal an emerging sensitivity to referential constraints. The observed changes in information use over ontogenetic time best support a constraint-based lexicalist account of parsing development, which posits that highly reliable cues to structure, like lexical biases, will emerge earlier during development and more robustly than less reliable cues.

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