Grammatical aspect and event recognition in children's online sentence comprehension

Peng Zhou*, Stephen Crain, Likan Zhan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

10 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

This study investigated whether or not the temporal information encoded in aspectual morphemes can be used immediately by young children to facilitate event recognition during online sentence comprehension. We focused on the contrast between two grammatical aspectual morphemes in Mandarin Chinese, the perfective morpheme -le and the (imperfective) durative morpheme -zhe. The perfective morpheme -le is often used to indicate that an event has been completed, whereas the durative morpheme -zhe indicates that an event is still in progress or continuing. We were interested to see whether young children are able to use the temporal reference encoded in the two aspectual morphemes (i.e., completed versus ongoing) as rapidly as adults to facilitate event recognition during online sentence comprehension. Using the visual world eye-tracking paradigm, we tested 34 Mandarin-speaking adults and 99 Mandarin-speaking children (35 three-year-olds, 32 four-year-olds and 32 five-year-olds). On each trial, participants were presented with spoken sentences containing either of the two aspectual morphemes while viewing a visual image containing two pictures, one representing a completed event and one representing an ongoing event. Participants' eye movements were recorded from the onset of the spoken sentences. The results show that both the adults and the three age groups of children exhibited a facilitatory effect trigged by the aspectual morpheme: hearing the perfective morpheme -le triggered more eye movements to the completed event area, whereas hearing the durative morpheme -zhe triggered more eye movements to the ongoing event area. This effect occurred immediately after the onset of the aspectual morpheme, both for the adults and the three groups of children. This is evidence that young children are able to use the temporal information encoded in aspectual morphemes as rapidly as adults to facilitate event recognition. Children's eye movement patterns reflect a rapid mapping of grammatical aspect onto the temporal structures of events depicted in the visual scene.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)262-276
Number of pages15
JournalCognition
Volume133
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2014

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