The role of recent versus future events in children’s comprehension of referentially ambiguous sentences: Evidence from eye tracking


Findings from recent eye-tracking studies suggest that adults prefer to rely more on recently seen events than possible future events during sentence comprehension: When the verb in an NP1-VERB-ADV-NP2 sentence was referentially ambiguous between a recent action and an equally possible future action, adults fixated the target of the recent action more often than the not-yet-acted upon object (Knoeferle & Crocker, 2007; Knoeferle, Carminati, Abashidze, & Essig, 2011). We examined whether this preference for the recent event generalizes to five-year-old children. In an eye-tracking study, five-year-olds were presented a display with an animal and two other objects. On the next picture frame, the animal was depicted as performing an action (e.g., a horse galloped to a blue barn). Next, a spoken sentence referred either to an event involving the acted upon target object (the blue barn) or to an equally plausible future action event (e.g. galloping to the red barn). At the adverb in NP1-VERB-ADV-PP sentences, children fixated more often the recent (vs. future) event target. This result replicates the findings from the adult studies and suggests that, just like adults, children rely more on the recent event than expectations of an event that could happen next. At the same time, visual context effects of the recent events were subtly delayed for children (vs. adults). For adults, the recent-event preference emerged during the verb; for children, by contrast, it emerged post-verbally during the adverb. Thus, similar attentional mechanisms underlie visual context effects in both 5-year old children and adults but their time course differs.

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