Relative Clause Perspective Shifting by Elementary

R. H. Bahr & E. R. Silliman, Doctoral Seminar, September 21, 2012
Language-specific theories of sentence processing suggest that individuals interpret sentences
based on competing linguistic clues of their native language (Morett & MacWhinney, in press)
(like word order, animacy, and N-V agreement), including their distributional patterns (Wells et
al., 2009). For example, in adult spoken English, object relative clauses (RCs) are more frequent
than subject RCs and animacy contributes to processing ease with either clause type (Roland,
Dick, & Elman, 2007). In Spanish reading comprehension, object RCs with animate noun
phrases appear to cause more processing difficulties for adults than subject RCs (Betancort,
Carrerias, & Sturt, 2009). However, the RC processing of school-age child (Spanish-English)
bilinguals has received minimal attention.
One factor not examined in depth in bilinguals is the role of perspective shifting in sentence
comprehension. According to MacWhinney (2005), perspective shifting plays a role in sentence
processing since individuals must coordinate cognitive and syntactic factors for accurate
sentence interpretation; that is, the language user must takes the sentence agent (or thematic
role) perspective. Furthermore, perspective maintenance becomes more complex when agency
changes between the head noun and the RC subject (Hutton & Kidd, 2011). The current study’s
purpose was to investigate the role of perspective shifting in the processing of relative clauses
by bilingual children using MouseTracker (Freeman & Ambady, 2010), a relatively new
technology for assessing real time sentence processing (see also the Morett & MacWhinney, in
press) bilingual adult study with Mouse Tracker).
Method: Oral processing of Spanish and English relative clauses was assessed in 14 carefully
selected Spanish-English bilinguals and 11 monolingual English-speaking students. Tasks,
including control sentences, were devised using Mouse Tracker software (Freeman & Ambady,
2010), and computer presented. Participants decided if the presented pictures reflected clausal
perspectives described in accompanying oral sentence presentations. Processing differences
were determined using the same software, which recorded response accuracy, reaction time
(RT), and mouse trajectory patterns as a measure of cognitive processing complexity.
Results: MANOVA results revealed a significant main effect for sentence type and no effect of
language in all analyses, i.e., bilingual participants performed similarly across languages and
like monolingual students. In general, accuracy levels were greater for the no switch sentence
type and control conditions. Analyses, which focused on the cognitive complexity of decision
making, revealed that bilingual children were more affected by the distracting choices (as
evidenced by higher maximum (MD) and area under the curve values (AUC) values) in
comparison to the monolingual children and in Spanish when compared to their English
sentence processing.
The data further suggested that monolingual English children displayed greater complexity in
cursor trajectories when processing relative clauses differing in agency perspective.
Implications: More literate oral comprehension appears to involve dynamic interactions among
linguistic experience (both oral and written domains), new agency perspectives, statistical
patterns, and the parsing of word order switches. Little is known about the developmental
trajectory of integrated RC comprehension, especially in bilingual students. MouseTracker
offers a research tool to follow the fine-grained aspects of this process.