One frog, two frog, red frog, blue frog: Factors affecting children’s syntactic choices in production and comprehension

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Two experiments are reported which examine children's ability to use referential context when making syntactic choices in language production and comprehension. In a recent on-line study of auditory comprehension, Trueswell, Sekerina, Hill, and Logrip (1999) examined children's and adults' abilities to resolve temporary syntactic ambiguities involving prepositional phrases (e.g., “Put the frog on the napkin into ¨”). Although adults and older children used the referential context to guide their initial analysis (pursuing a destination interpretation in a one-frog context and a modifier interpretation in a two-frog context), 4 to 5-year olds' initial and ultimate analysis was one of destination, regardless of context. The present studies examined whether these differences were attributable to the comprehension process itself or to other sources, such as possible differences in how children perceive the scene and referential situation. In both experiments, children were given a language generation task designed to elicit and test children's ability to refer to a member of a set through restrictive modification. This task was immediately followed by the “put” comprehension task. The findings showed that, in response to a question about a member of a set (e.g., “Which frog went to Mrs. Squid's house?”), 4- to 5-year-olds frequently produced a definite NP with a restrictive prepositional modifier (e.g., “The one on the napkin”). These same children, however, continued to misanalyze put instructions, showing a strong avoidance of restrictive modification during comprehension. Experiment 2 showed that an increase in the salience of the platforms that distinguished the two referents increased overall performance, but still showed the strong asymmetry between production and comprehension. Eye movements were also recorded in Experiment 2, revealing on-line parsing patterns similar to Trueswell et al.: an initial preference for a destination analysis and a failure to revise early referential commitments. These experiments indicate that child–adult differences in parsing preferences arise, in part, from developmental changes in the comprehension process itself and not from a general insensitivity to referential properties of the scene. The findings are consistent with a probabilistic model for uncovering the structure of the input during comprehension, in which more reliable linguistic and discourse-related cues are learned first, followed by a gradually developing ability to take into account other more uncertain (or more difficult to learn) cues to structure.