No Fear of Commitment: Children’s Incremental Interpretation in English and Japanese Wh-Questions

Akira Omaki, Imogen Davidson-White, Takuya Goro, Jeffrey Lidz, Colin Phillips

Much work on child sentence processing has demonstrated that children are able to use various linguistic cues to incrementally resolve temporary syntactic ambiguities, but they fail to use syntactic or interpretability cues that arrive later in the sentence. The present study explores whether children incrementally resolve filler-gap dependencies, using Japanese and English ambiguous wh-questions of the form "Where did Lizzie tell someone that she was gonna catch butterflies?", in which one could answer either the telling location (main clause interpretation) or the butterfly– catching location (embedded clause interpretation). Three story-based experiments demonstrate two novel findings on children’s incremental interpretation of filler-gap dependencies. First, we observe that English-speaking adults and children generally prefer the main clause interpretation, whereas Japanese adults and children both prefer the embedded clause interpretation. As the linear order of main clause and embedded clause predicates differs between English (main first, embedded second) and Japanese (embedded first, main second), the results indicate that adults and children actively associate the wh-phrase with the first predicate in the sentence. Second, Japanese children were unable to inhibit their embedded clause interpretation bias when the sentence was manipulated to syntactically block such analyses. The failure to inhibit the preferred interpretation suggests that the wh-phrase was incrementally associated with the embedded clause. On the other hand, when the sentence was manipulated to semantically block a plausible interpretation for the embedded clause wh-association, children were able to overcome their strong embedded clause interpretation bias and favored the main clause interpretation. These findings suggest that syntactic and interpretability cues may have distinct impacts on children’s sentence comprehension processes.