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Auteur: Maria Teresa GUASTI

Co-Auteur(s): Mirta VERNICE

When sensitivity to syntactic structure and contrastive stress start to influence children sentence continuation?

Abstract/Résumé: In connected utterances, the choice of which referent to mention as the subject of a subsequent sentence depends on which element appears to be most salient and most accessible to the speaker (Arnold, 2008). Several linguistic cues, such animacy, as syntactic position or structure, prosodic stress might influence the accessibility of each referent. In the present study, when contrastive stress cue and syntactic structures, i.e., cleft, are exploited by children to decide which referent is more salient in a utterance and thus more likely to be assigned to subject position in a subsequent sentence. Previous research indicates problems with specific prosodic cues, e.g., contrastive stress, at least until the age of five (e.g., Cutler & Swiney, 1987; Gualmini et al., 2002). However most of the previous studies focused on the comprehension of specific structures such as the focus operator ‘only’ in English. Thus such evidence cannot be regarded as conclusive (e.g., Chen, 2010). To determine to what extent Italian speakers make use of contrastive stress in order to decide which referent is more salient in a sentence, and more likely to become the subject of a subsequent utterance, we asked 4-, 5-, 5-year-olds, and adult speakers of Italian to generate a continuation of three types of sentences. During presentation of the material, we monitored eye movements. Experimental sentences presented a default stress on the last NP (la zebra bagna l’ippopotamo; ‘the zebra is soaking the hippo’), as assigned by the nuclear stress rule (cf. Chomsky & Halle, 1968; Cinque, 1993); contrastive stress on the subject (la ZEBRA bagna l’ippopotamo; ‘the ZEBRA is soaking the hippo’); contrastive stress on the direct object (la zebra bagna l’IPPOPOTAMO; ‘the zebra is soaking the HIPPO’). Participants as young as 5 years of age tended to mention next, as the subject of their sentence continuations, the referent that received contrastive stress in the previous utterance. This tendency was consistent in 6-year-olds and adults too. Conversely, 4-year-olds did not appear to rely on contrastive stress cue in order to decide which referent to mention next, although preliminary evidence from eye movement indicates some sensitivity to stress. Interestingly, 4-year-olds appeared to rely mostly on structural cues (syntactic and/or linear position), to determine which referent was most salient.