Graduation Year

2011

Document Type

Thesis

Degree

M.S.

Degree Granting Department

Communication Sciences and Disorders

Major Professor

Ruth H. Bahr

Keywords

Bilingualism, Mouse Tracker, Perspective Shifting, Relative Clauses, Sentence Processing

Abstract

Language-specific theories of sentence processing suggest that individuals interpret sentences based on the characteristics of their native language (e.g., Bates & MacWhinney, 1989). As such, competing linguistic cues are taken into account (including word order, morphology, and animacy) and the cue selected is most likely to yield a correct interpretation in the native language. However, research in this area has produced conflicting results. MacWhinney (2005) has proposed that examining the role of perspective shifting in sentence comprehension may demonstrate how cognitive and syntactic factors work together to facilitate sentence comprehension. The aim of the current study is to investigate the role of perspective shifting in the processing of relative clauses by bilingual children.

A total of 16 bilingual and 13 monolingual children in grades 3 and 5 participated in this study. Difficulty in Spanish and English sentence processing was assessed using four types of relative clauses, that varied in the complexity of perspective shift, and a control sentence. A sentence comprehension task was devised using Mouse Tracker software (Freeman & Ambady, 2010) to assess the participant's ability to identify whether or not the presented picture reflected the relationship described in the oral sentence presentation. Difficulty in sentence processing was determined using measures of accuracy (percent correct and d') and response time (RT). Data were compared across languages for the bilingual children and with an monolingual English control group.

MANOVA results revealed a significant main effect for sentence type and no effect of language in all analyses. Hence, bilingual participant performance on the sentence processing task was similar across languages and across language groups when compared to those monolingual English speakers. In general, accuracy levels and d' values were greater for the 0 switch and control conditions. RTs were longer for the more complex relative clauses. The 1+ condition consistently appeared to be the most difficult. These findings indicate that participants processed the relative clauses in a similar way across languages and that more complex perspective shifts resulted in poorer performance.

These results suggest that perspective shifting is a relevant factor in syntax comprehension, but that the number of perspective shifts is less important. Instead, the direction of perspective shift and the role of the relative clause (subject versus object-modifying) seem to be more essential. These results support the Unified Competition Model (MacWhinney, 1997) by demonstrating the use of shared cognitive processes across languages. However, one cannot rule out the role of language dominance and language structure in relative clause processing as the sentences in this experiment maintained parallel syntactic structures across languages. Clinical and educational implications are provided.