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Putting children and adults in Context

Final Activity Report Summary - CHILDREN IN CONTEXT (Putting children and adults in Context)

I have continued my research on child language. Among other studies, I have examined children comprehension of sentences like 'put the frog on the napkin into the box.' We present this sentence to children in a context in which there is one frog on a napkin and a second frog, which is not on any napkin. The sentence fragment 'Put the frog on the napkin ...' can be interpreted in one of two ways, because the phrase 'on the napkin' could refer to a destination, indicating where to put the frog, or it could be used as a modifier of the noun 'frog', indicating which frog to move. Research on language processing has showed that listeners do not wait till the end of the sentence before interpreting it, on the contrary listeners understand language as it unfolds in real time. Outside of any context, people tend to 'commit' to an interpretation as soon as they have the necessary elements. After hearing 'on the napkin,' for example, people interpret this phrase as referring to the destination of the putting event, even though it could be a modifier as we saw. We know this, because when people subsequently hear 'into the box,' they are surprised. However, contextual factors can influence the way people interpret language.

Children do not always behave in the same way as adults do, however. When children are asked to: 'put the frog on the napkin into the box', they tend to interpret 'on the napkin' as a destination and, as a consequence, they are confused as to which frog to move. From this finding, it has been inferred that children are unable to use contextual factors (e.g. the presence of two frogs) to guide their interpretation. I questioned this conclusion, based on an independent line of research which chalks up children's failures in many tasks to non-linguistic factors, such as attempting to form and execute a response to language as quickly as possible. In a series of experiments, I show children's failure to use contextual information in previous research was due to their tendency to form and execute response plans on-the-fly.