Developing incrementality in filler-gap dependency processing

Emily Atkinson, Matthew Wagers, Jeffrey Lidz, Colin Phillips, Akira Omaki

Much work has demonstrated that children are able to use bottom-up linguistic cues to incrementally interpret sentences, but there is little understanding of the extent to which children’s comprehension mechanisms are guided by top-down linguistic information that can be learned from distributional regularities in the input. Using a visual world eye tracking experiment and a corpus analysis, the current study investigates whether 5- and 6-year-old children incrementally assign interpretations to temporarily ambiguous wh-questions like What was Emily eating the cake with __?. In the visual world eye-tracking experiment, adults demonstrated evidence for active dependency formation at the earliest region (i.e., the verb region), while 6-year-old children demonstrated a spill-over effect of this bias in the subsequent NP region. No evidence for this bias was found in 5-year-olds, although the speed of arrival at the ultimately correct instrument interpretation appears to be modulated by the vocabulary size. These results suggest that adult-like active formation of filler-gap dependencies begins to emerge around age 6. The corpus analysis of filler-gap dependency structures in adult corpora and child corpora demonstrate that the distributional regularities in either corpora are equally in favor of early, incremental completion of filler-gap dependencies, suggesting that the distributional information in the input is either not relevant to this incremental bias, or that 5-year-old children are somehow unable to recruit this information in real-time comprehension. Taken together, these findings shed light on the origin of the incremental processing bias in filler-gap dependency processing, as well as on the role of language experience and cognitive constraints in the development of incremental sentence processing mechanisms.