Developmental Psycholinguistics : On-line methods in children’s language processing

Developmental Psycholinguistics :On-line methods in children’s language processing (pdf) edited by Irina A. Sekerina, Eva M. Fernandez, Harald Clahsen

The study of child language occupies a unique place in research on children’s cognitive development. This comes as no surprise, as language is quite close to the core of what it means to be human. Children successfully learn their native language in a relatively short time and without the need for formal instruction. Language is also the main vehicle by which we learn about other peoples thoughts; therefore, cognitive and linguistic aspects of human development must be intimately related.

Traditional methods of inquiry in modern linguistics and cognitive psychology have enabled us to learn a great deal about how children acquire language and the stages they go through on their way to adult competence (Pinker 1995). But empirical studies on how childrens language develops published over the last 30 or 40 years have a striking characteristic in common: they treat language acquisition as a process that involves building a static database called the grammar, to the exclusion of the mechanisms that operate in real time when the child produces or comprehends language.

The classic Competence/Performance distinction (e.g., Chomsky 1964) provides a useful framework for discussing this problem: while investigations of child language acquisition are grounded on the assumption that knowledge of language is put to work via a set of processing mechanisms (performance), the primary concern in acquisition research has been with how that principled knowledge (competence) develops. McDaniel, McKee and Cairns (1996), in their seminal book on assessing child language, described how the knowledge that constitutes competence had up until then been extensively studied, and they documented the predominance of off-line experimental methods, that is, techniques that prompted children to act out sentences, answer questions or provide grammaticality judgments, responses that could then be compared to those provided by adults or by older or younger children. Armed with empirical evidence of that sort, the field was able to begin to address some of the most basic questions about language development and to formulate explicit descriptions about the nature of developmental sequences.

The era of traditional research on language acquisition, captured so well in the volume by McDaniel et al. (1996), has grown into a mature area of inquiry whose insights have led to a rich understanding about the development of linguistic competence. But times have changed, as we enter a new era that takes a “dynamic processing approach” to the study of language development (Trueswell this volume). We are witnessing a growing interest in the mechanisms that underlie production and comprehension abilities in children, a shift from a focus on competence to a focus on performance. This enterprise has been significantly facilitated by recent advances in technologies that permit tracking behavior at a very fine temporal resolution, methods that have been successfully and extensively applied to study language processing in adults. Such new techniques, which we will collectively refer to as on-line, measure reaction times, track eye gazes, examine brain activity. Some of these methods, like self-paced reading, self-paced listening, and cross-modal priming benefit from having a long-standing tradition in the study of adult language processing. Others, like eyetracking and neurophysiological techniques (Henderson & Ferreira 2004; Trueswell & Tanenhaus 2005; Carreiras & Clifton 2004), are newer but quite powerful additions to the experimental toolkit, particularly because they provide the means to study in great detail very early phases of processing, and because they rely little on conscious attention to or metalinguistic awareness of linguistic stimuli.

While most first language acquisition research to date has focused on the development of childrens linguistic competence, a number of research teams have also investigated the mechanisms children employ to process sentence-level and word-level information in real time, by applying experimental techniques familiar from the adult processing literature to children. This chapter presents an overview of different kinds of behavioral tasks for investigating both morphological and syntactic processing in children focusing on three techniques that we have explored in our own research on childrens on-line language processing: self-paced listening, cross-modal priming, and speeded production.


Irina A. Sekerina, Eva M. Fernandez and Harald Clahsen

  • List of contributors
  • Behavioral methods for investigating morphological and syntactic processing in children /Harald Clahsen
  • Event-related brain potentials as a window to children’s language processing: From syllables to sentences/ Claudia Mannel and Angela D. Friederici
  • Using eye movements as a developmental measure within psycholinguistics/ John C. Trueswell
  • Looking while listening: Using eye movements to monitor spoken language comprehension by infants and young children/ Anne Fernald, Renate Zangl, Ana Luz Portillo and Virginia A. Marchtnan
  • What lurks beneath: Syntactic priming during language comprehension in preschoolers (and adults)Jesse Snedeker and Malathi Ihothathiri
  • Language acquisition research. A peek at the past:A glimpse into the futureHelen Smith Cairns


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