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Referential Processes in Children’s Sentence Comprehension: Evidence from Numerically Quantified Expressions

By Marilena Mousoulidou


The current thesis reports seven experiments investigating the interpretation that children and adults assign to numerically quantified expression ambiguities like the one shown in (1).\ud 1. Three cats were on the wall. Two cats were playing with a mouse.\ud In this example, the quantified noun-phrase two cats is ambiguous, since it can be interpreted as referring to the set of three cats already established in discourse (i.e. subset reading) or as introducing new referents into discourse (i.e. new-set reading). Research with adults (Frazier et al., 2005; Kaan, Dallas & Barkley, 2007; Paterson, Filik, Mousoulidou, Baliousis & Moxey, 2008b; Wijnen & Kaan, 2006) showed that adults have a preference for interpreting referential expressions with respect to the prior discourse context and thus prefer the subset reading of ambiguities like the one shown in (1). By employing a task involving pictures, the current research examined whether six to eight year old children have the same preference.\ud Each experiment used different techniques to examine children’s interpretative preferences when analysing numerically quantified expressions. In the initial experiment children were presented with sentence pairs accompanied with two pictures; one picture matched the subset reading of the ambiguity and the other matched the new set reading. The sentence pairs either included an ambiguous quantified expression, as in (1), or quantified expressions that were disambiguated in favour of a subset reading (e.g., "two of the cats..."), or a new set reading (e.g., "two other cats..."). The results of seven experiments showed that children do not interpret numerically quantified expressions in the same manner to adults. Whereas adults preferred the subset reading of ambiguous quantified expressions and always assigned the appropriate reading to unambiguous ones, children showed a strong preference for the new-set reading of both ambiguous and unambiguous quantified expressions. The significance of this finding is considered in relation to studies showing that whereas adults readily establish co-referential links between sentences, children have more difficulty in doing so (e.g., Karmiloff-Smith, 1979; 1980)

Publisher: University of Leicester
Year: 2010
OAI identifier:

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