The Development of Language Processing in Children and Adults

University of Essex

Supported by the Leverhulme Trust (2000-2003)

The purpose of this project was to understand the cognitive mechanisms that allow language learners to parse sentences. In psycholinguistics, parsing refers to the mental processes that are involved in the grammatical analysis of phrases, sentences and morphologically complex words in real time. While there is a substantial body of research on sentence processing in adult native speakers, the details of a language learner’s parsing system are still largely unknown. Our main goal is to study the development of parsing mechanisms in child first language (L1) learners and to compare these to the parsing mechanisms employed by adult second language (L2) learners. We will investigate two areas of sentence processing: syntactic ambiguities in sentences such as Show me the daughter of the woman who had the accident, and filler-gap dependencies as in Which paintings did you give __ to Mary. The project aims to contribute to resolving the following empirical issues: To what extent are parsing mechanisms specific to particular languages, and thus have to be learned by experience (i.e., through exposure to a language L)? Are parsing mechanisms available to the language learner once the relevant grammatical knowledge has been acquired, or do they need to be learned separately? In second language learners, are parsing mechanisms from the first language transferred to the L2?

Project staff

Harald Clahsen
Claudia Felser
Roger Hawkins
Theodore Marinis, Leah Roberts (research officers)