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Detail of contribution


Co-Auteur(s): Anja MÜLLER, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Germany Barbara HÖHLE, Universität Potsdam, Germany

What eyetracking can reveal about the comprehension of the restrictive focus particle 'only': Data from children and adults

Abstract/Résumé: Children's comprehension of sentences containing focus particles (FP) seems to differ from adults’. When asked to judge the sentence 'Only the elephant has a kite' in a situation where an elephant and a duck both have a kite, children tend to say 'yes' while adults say 'no'. A correct interpretation presupposes the association of the FP with the focused element and the construction of the contrast set of alternatives. Depending on its position, the FP 'only' can associate with different elements: with the object (The elephant has only a kite) or with the subject (example above). Children display a performance asymmetry for both sentence types: object- or VP-related 'only' is correctly interpreted at an earlier age (from 2.5 years on) than subject-related 'only'. The VP-orientation account (Crain et al. 1994) claims that children initially treat the FP as adverb, thereby associating it always with the VP. The focus-default account (Müller et al. 2011) assumes a correct association of the FP and argues that children's errors originate from the mismatch of the default focus position (VP or object) with the focused subject in sentences with subject-related 'only'. While both accounts explain the same error pattern, only the latter predicts children's computation of the subject alternative set as a consequence of the correctly associated FP. Using automatic eye tracking we investigated whether children attend to the subject contrast set. Scenarios with cartoon characters were presented making accompanying sentences with subject- or object-related 'only' true or false. The first part of the experiment did not require any responses. In part 2 participants had to judge the sentence-picture match. Four-year-old children (mean 4.5) and adult controls participated. We predicted more looks to the alternative characters in sentences with subject-related 'only' compared to sentences with object-related 'only' or without 'only'. This was confirmed in the mismatch scenarios for children and adults. In addition, explicit responses identified three subgroups in children: adult-like, errors only for subject-related 'only', and errors in all FP sentences. These responses do not correspond to the eyetracking data. All children, regardless of their performance pattern, attended to the subject contrast set when appropriate. We conclude that four-year-old children can associate 'only' correctly. Response errors are assumed to arise from additional demands in the judgement task. Thus, information structure processing is better than offline tasks alone would suggest.