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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Lexical activation effects on children's sentence production Charest, Monique Joanne


Sentence production requires the integration of activated words with a syntactic plan; however, there has been little investigation of how the integration process affects children’s productions. Research with adults shows that lexical activation order can influence syntactic planning, placing earlier-activated words in earlier-occurring grammatical roles. It has also been proposed that the relationship between lexical activation and syntactic planning can affect processing ease. When lexical activation order and sentence structure are in conflict, a speaker may need to resolve the conflict prior to speaking, and/or buffer the early-activated word until it is produced late in the sentence. This investigation examined the effects of lexical activation order on sentence structure and processing outcomes for 4- and 7-year-old children, using a semantic priming manipulation. In Study 1, children described transitive scenes and also completed a primed picture-naming task. The results documented that the children produced active transitives as the default sentence pattern, and that the older children alternated to patient-subject sentences more often than the younger children when pressured to do so by a cloze prompt. The results also documented facilitative effects of semantic priming on lexical activation speed. Study 2 integrated the semantic primes with sentence production. In one half of the trials, a patient-related prime preceded the scene description. The analyses examined whether patient-subject sentences occurred more often following patient-related primes, and whether early activation of the patient produced negative consequences to sentence onset speed, grammatical integrity, and/or fluency in (agent-subject) active transitive sentences. The results revealed that the patient-related primes did not increase the rate of patient-subject sentential descriptions. However, when children produced active transitive sentences, they were slower to begin speaking following patient-related primes than control primes. There was no significant effect of the primes on fluency or auxiliary omission rates, no difference in prime effects as a function of age group, and no correlation between prime effects and working memory ability. The results indicate a strong constraint of syntactic preferences on children’s sentence planning, and support the conclusion that conflicts between lexical activation and syntactic planning can negatively affect the speed of children’s sentence planning.

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