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On-line processing of English which-questions by children and adults: a visual world paradigm study*


Previous research has shown that children demonstrate similar sentence processing reflexes to those observed in adults, but they have difficulties revising an erroneous initial interpretation when they process garden-path sentences, passives, and wh-questions. We used the visual-world paradigm to examine children's use of syntactic and non-syntactic information to resolve syntactic ambiguity by extending our understanding of number features as a cue for interpretation to which-subject and which-object questions. We compared children's and adults’ eye-movements to understand how this information shapes children's commitment to and revision of possible interpretations of these questions. The results showed that English-speaking adults and children both exhibit an initial preference to interpret an object-which question as a subject question. While adults quickly override this preference, children take significantly longer, showing an overall processing difficulty for object questions. Crucially, their recovery from an initially erroneous interpretation is speeded when disambiguating number agreement features are present.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Carla Contemori, Department of Languages and Linguistics, University of Texas at El Paso, 500 W. University Ave, El Paso, TX 79968. e-mail:
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This work was supported by the Fondazione Marica De Vincenzi under the 2011 Postdoctoral Grant to the first author, which is gratefully acknowledged.

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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
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