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Discourse connectives and the mind: a cross-linguistic analysis of processing and acquisition

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Processing discourse connectives

Understanding how people learn language provides a window into the brain. An EU-funded project examined how children and adults learn and understand discourse connectives.

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Discourse connectives are words that relate two clauses in a sentence. Examples include 'so' and 'because'. Every language has one or many discourse connectives, and they are used for many purposes, such as showing causal relationships or relating two events. This project, 'Discourse connectives and the mind: A cross-linguistic analysis of processing and acquisition' (DISCOM), explored the cognitive differences in how people process discourse connectives in their own and second languages. The first part of the study looked at how children process discourse connectives. The children were learning Dutch and French simultaneously. In Dutch, a causal relationship is expressed by two discourse connectives, while in French there is only one. Despite these differences, the children had a similar ability to understand objective and subjective causal relations, indicating that cognitive development sets the pace for understanding language. In the second part of the study, DISCOM compared text processing of discourse connectives between adults and children. In this case, adults understood the text much better than children, suggesting that processing subtle cues of discourse connectives occurs later in development. When applied to people with autism, these findings suggest that some of their difficulties with communication may be linked to the structure of language. During the final experiment, non-native Dutch and French speakers were asked to complete a reading task. Results showed that grammar judgement was weaker for non-native speakers, but their understanding of the meaning of connectives was almost the same as it was for the native speakers. While it may be more difficult to derive meaning if there is not a one-to-one translation of a particular connective, cognitive processes still allow for solid understanding. These findings provide insight into how people learn and process second languages, which can help educators tailor how these languages are taught. Furthermore, the findings have the potential to guide treatment for disorders such as autism, which have a language deficit component.

Keywords

Discourse connectives, language, causal relationships, cross-linguistic, processing and acquisition, cognitive differences, second languages, cognitive development, autism, native speakers, cognitive processes, language deficit

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