Lara Ehrenhofer · [LSLT] Sprechen Sie Passiv? Cue placement in German may allow kids to bypass syntactic revision
Successful language comprehension involves identifying grammatical roles in a sentence (who did what to whom?). It also involves navigating sentences whose structure is temporarily ambiguous. Given these challenges, children (but not adults) often fail to arrive at correct sentence interpretations. This experiment will use some handy aspects of German word order to further explore whether kids are globally blind to certain types of morphosyntactic cue, or whether their underdeveloped cognitive control skills are to blame, using passives. Unlike active sentences, which name the agent (entity doing the action) first, passives first present the theme (entity the action is done to): “the seal was eaten by the shark” (passive) vs. “the seal was eating the fish” (active). Worse still, although the form of the main verb (“eating” vs. “eaten”) is an obvious cue to the sentence structure, it appears after comprehenders have already assumed that the seal is the agent, requiring them to revise the structure they hypothesise the sentence to take. German syntax allows the cue to passive to be placed before the agent or the theme, removing the need for syntactic revision. If this manipulation helps kids arrive at the correct sentence interpretation, this strengthens the case for parsing difficulties as a main source of differences between child and adult language processing.