Brandt, S., Kidd, E., Lieven, E., & Tomasello, M.
(2009). The discourse bases of relativization: An investigation of young German and English-speaking children's comprehension of relative clauses. Cognitive Linguistics, 20(3), 539-570. doi:10.1515/COGL.2009.024.
In numerous comprehension studies, across different languages, children have performed worse on object relatives (e.g., the dog that the cat chased) than on subject relatives (e.g., the dog that chased the cat). One possible reason for this is that the test sentences did not exactly match the kinds of object relatives that children typically experience. Adults and children usually hear and produce object relatives with inanimate heads and pronominal subjects (e.g., the car that we bought last year) (cf. Kidd et al., Language and Cognitive Processes 22: 860–897, 2007). We tested young 3-year old German- and English-speaking children with a referential selection task. Children from both language groups performed best in the condition where the experimenter described inanimate referents with object relatives that contained pronominal subjects (e.g., Can you give me the sweater that he bought?). Importantly, when the object relatives met the constraints identified in spoken discourse, children understood them as well as subject relatives, or even better. These results speak against a purely structural explanation for children's difficulty with object relatives as observed in previous studies, but rather support the usage-based account, according to which discourse function and experience with language shape the representation of linguistic structures.