Commitment and Flexibility in the Developing Parser

Akira Omaki

This dissertation investigates adults and children's sentence processing mechanisms, with a special focus on how multiple levels of linguistic representation are incrementally computed in real time, and how this process affects the parser's ability to later revise its early commitments. Using cross-methodological and cross-linguistic investigations of long-distance dependency processing, this dissertation demonstrates how paying explicit attention to the procedures by which linguistic representations are computed is vital to understanding both adults' real time linguistic computation and children's reanalysis mechanisms. The first part of the dissertation uses time course evidence from self-paced reading and eye tracking studies (reading and visual world) to show that long-distance dependency processing can be decomposed into a sequence of syntactic and interpretive processes. First, the reading experiments provide evidence that suggests that filler-gap dependencies are constructed before verb information is accessed. Second, visual world experiments show that, in the absence of information that would allow hearers to predict verb content in advance, interpretive processes in filler-gap dependency computation take around 600ms. These results argue for a predictive model of sentence interpretation in which syntactic representations are computed in advance of interpretive processes. The second part of the dissertation capitalizes on this procedural account of filler-gap dependency processing, and reports cross-linguistic studies on children's long-distance dependency processing. Interpretation data from English and Japanese demonstrate that children actively associate a fronted wh-phrase with the first VP in the sentence, and successfully retract such active syntactic commitments when the lack of felicitous interpretation is signaled by verb information, but not when it is signaled by syntactic information. A comparison of the process of anaphor reconstruction in adults and children further suggests that verb-based thematic information is an effective revision cue for children. Finally, distributional analyses of wh-dependencies in child-directed speech are conducted to investigate how parsing constraints impact language acquisition. It is shown that the actual properties of the child parser can skew the input distribution, such that the effective distribution differs drastically from the input distribution seen from a researcher's perspective. This suggests that properties of developing perceptual mechanisms deserve more attention in language acquisition research.