Four-year-old Mandarin-speaking children’s online comprehension of relative clauses

Yang, W., Chan, A., Chang, F., & Kidd, E. (2020). Four-year-old Mandarin-speaking children’s online comprehension of relative clauses. Cognition, 196: 104103. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2019.104103.
A core question in language acquisition is whether children’s syntactic processing is experience-dependent and language-specific, or whether it is governed by abstract, universal syntactic machinery. We address this question by presenting corpus and on-line processing dat a from children learning Mandarin Chinese, a language that has been important in debates about the universality of parsing processes. The corpus data revealed that two different relative clause constructions in Mandarin are differentially used to modify syntactic subjects and objects. In the experiment, 4-year-old children’s eye-movements were recorded as they listened to the two RC construction types (e.g., Can you pick up the pig that pushed the sheep?). A permutation analysis showed that children’s ease of comprehension was closely aligned with the distributional frequencies, suggesting syntactic processing preferences are shaped by the input experience of these constructions.
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