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Research Projects

Relativized Minimality: From Theory to data. The online and offline impact of grammatical features on German relative clause comprehension in children and adults

This project focuses on sentence comprehension in unimpaired language processing (healthy adults) and acquisition (typically-developing children), as well as in language breakdown (adults with aphasia, children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) and/or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) by testing German subject- and object-extracted relative clauses (e.g., „Wo ist der Igel, den der Käfer fängt“ / “Where is the hedgehog that the beetle is chasing”).

In addition to auditory off-line comprehension, we also monitor the participants’ eye movements during a referent-identification task (visual world paradigm) as a fine-grained measure of their on-line processing. Furthermore, our experiments inspect the impact of the grammatical features case and number and the presence of pronouns, as well as the influence of cognitive abilities like working memory, in order to identify potential factors assisting comprehension.

Among the multifaceted results, we find a subject-object asymmetry across all populations, with subject relatives being generally easier to process than object relatives. Also, individuals with aphasia were found to benefit from featural dissimilarity and differences in terms of DP type (e.g., full DP in matrix and pronoun in relative clause) to understand the sentence. Children, however, did not display such clear pronoun facilitation. 

Our findings suggest though, that both typically and atypically developing children with strong working memory skills show higher comprehension performance. The co-occurrence of language impairment and ASD heavily hinders the processing of complex sentences. The implication for therapy in the three domains (aphasia, language impairment and ASD) are discussed.

Principal Investigator: Flavia Adani
Funded by: German Research Foundation (DFG, 2013-2016)

L1-acquisition of linguistic means to mark information structure:
prosodic, syntactic and lexical aspects

In this project, we were interested in the acquisition of syntactic and lexical means to mark information structure by children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) and children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). While originally looking for evidence of distinctive profiles of the two disorders (assuming poor syntactic and strong pragmatic abilities by children with SLI, and strong syntactic and poor pragmatic abilities by children with ASD), we found on the basis of our studies on sentence comprehension and on the production of referring expressions in varying contexts that the profiles of the two disorders are not a reversed mirror image of one another. Rather children with SLI can show surface pragmatic symptoms that can be related to their underlying grammatical or processing deficit and individuals with ASD demonstrate communicative strengths in some respects.

C3 project in the Collaborative Research Center 632 Information Structure
Investigators: Flavia Adani in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Barbara Höhle
Funded by: German Research Foundation (DFG, 2011–2015)

Effects of embedded pronouns on relative clause processing: Cross-linguistic evidence from children and adults

The studies included in this project were designed to explore under what circumstances the presence of a pronoun facilitate the processing of relative clauses. Several theoretical approaches that explain the pronoun facilitation in relative clauses are evaluated. The experimental data have been collected in three languages–German, Italian and Hebrew–stemming from both children and adults. Taken together, the presented data indicate that sentence processing is not only driven by structural (syntactic) factors, but also by discourse-related ones, like pronouns’ referential properties or their discourse accessibility mechanism, defined as the level of ease or difficulty with which their referents are identified. Although independent in essence, these structural and discourse factors can in some cases interact in a way that affects sentence processing. Moreover, both types of factors appear to be strongly related to memory. The data also support the idea that, from early on, children are sensitive to the same factors that affect adults’ sentence processing, and that the processing strategies of both populations are qualitatively similar.

Principal Investigator: Yair Haendler
Funded by: Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk (Grant PF123, 2013-2016)