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The role of working memory and contextual constraints in children's processing of relative clauses

By Anna R. Weighall and Gerry T. M. Altmann

Abstract

An auditory sentence comprehension task investigated the extent to which the integration of contextual and structural cues was mediated by verbal memory span with 32 English-speaking 6- to 8-year old children. Spoken relative clause sentences were accompanied by visual context pictures which fully (depicting the actions described within the relative clause) or partially (depicting several referents) met the pragmatic assumptions of relativisation. Comprehension of the main and relative clauses of centre-embedded and right-branching structures was compared for each context. Pragmatically-appropriate contexts exerted a positive effect on relative clause comprehension, but children with higher memory spans demonstrated a further benefit for main clauses. Comprehension for centre-embedded main clauses was found to be very poor, independently of either context or memory span. The results suggest that children have access to adult-like linguistic processing mechanisms, and that sensitivity to extra-linguistic cues is evident in young children and develops as cognitive capacity increases

Publisher: Cambridge University P.
Year: 2010
OAI identifier: oai:shura.shu.ac.uk:2724

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