The (Un)Surprising Kindergarten Path

AbstractDuring sentence comprehension, listeners form expectations about likely structures before they have reached the end of a sentence. Children are more likely than adults to ignore late-arriving evidence when it contradicts their initial parse. While this difference is generally ascribed to developmental changes in executive function, this paper investigates whether statistical properties of child-directed speech could be responsible for children’s failure to revise temporarily ambiguous sentences. We examined well-studied garden-path sentences and calculated surprisal values derived from adult and child-directed corpora at each word. For adult corpora, surprisal was highest where the sentence structure was disambiguated. For child corpora, however, values at the disambiguating region were low relative to other words in the sentence. This suggests that for children, the disambiguating words may be statistically weak cues to ruling out their original parse, and that in principle, the statistics of child-directed speech could contribute to children’s difficulty with garden-path sentences.

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