The comprehension and production of restrictive relative clauses

This project will address the issue of syntactic choice in children’s production and comprehension of spoken language, focusing specifically on restrictive subject and object relative clauses.

The restrictive relative clause is a complex syntactic construction and a sophisticated device to disambiguate referential choices (e.g. You need to eat the orange that I put in your lunch box). Previous corpus and experimental work has highlighted asymmetries between subject and object relative clauses, and pointed to the central role of animacy.

The four studies planned will address the interplay of different linguistic factors (animacy, discourse topicality and semantic plausibility) to identify predictors of children’s choices in production and comprehension. The role of participant’s perspective and independent measures of linguistic (sentence recall) and non-linguistic (working memory, cognitive flexibility) will also be explored for a better understanding of the determinants of individual differences in children’s use and comprehension of complex syntax.

The aims of the study are:

  1. to investigate how type of referential expression, discourse context, animacy, and semantic plausibility predict children’s comprehension and production of subject and object relative clauses;
  2. to assess the role of cognitive flexibility, working memory and sentence recall abilities in understanding individual variation in children’s syntactic choices of a complex syntactic construction.

The experiments will be set up as a series of referential communication games where the child either follows the experimenter’s instructions or gives the experimenter instructions to select pictures to complete a bingo card (e.g. Give me the dog that is eating the bone).

In a series of four experiments we will manipulate type of referential expression, discourse context, animacy, and semantic plausibility.

Measures of cognitive flexibility (Flexible Item Selection Task); working memory (backward digit recall), and sentence recall skills (CELF, sentence repetition sub-test) will be used as extra-linguistic predictors of syntactic choice.

The findings of these studies will also be relevant outside the immediate academic community to teachers and speech and language therapists as we are investigating both linguistic and non-linguistic determinants of children’s syntactic choice in subordination. Subordinate clauses are a hallmark of a sophisticated speaker and writer, and a good index of grammatical complexity.

Project Team: Ludovica Serratrice (Lead), Silke Brandt, Evan Kidd, Elena Lieven and Anna Theakston.

Start Date: September 2016

Duration: 3 years

(Work Package 10)