The impact of phonological similarity on syntactic priming: A comparison between young children and adults
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It’s well established that adults have an abstract level of representation which specifies syntactic information, independent of lexical, semantic or metrical content. Strong evidence for this claim comes from adults’ demonstrations of syntactic priming: the tendency to repeat the syntactic structure of previously experienced language in otherwise unrelated sentences (e.g. the tendency to produce a description like A red triangle, rather than A triangle that’s red, after hearing the phrase A yellow circle). Little is known about whether phonological relations influence processes involving these representations in either adults or children. Indeed, little is generally known about the nature of young children’s syntactic knowledge. In the present study syntactic priming’s potential ability to elucidate the form of noun phrase syntactic representations in 3- and 4-year old children and adults, was exploited. A dialogue priming task, disguised as the familiar “Snap” card game was employed, in which an experimenter and a participant alternatively described cards depicting coloured objects to one another. The experimenter’s prime descriptions had either an Adjective-Noun (e.g. A yellow sock) or a Noun-Relative Clause structure (e.g. A sock that’s yellow) and either featured the same noun as that depicted in the participants card, or a rhyming noun (e.g. clock-sock). Child participants produced an identical pattern of effects to adults; both displayed syntactic priming when the nouns in the prime and target descriptions were the same and when they rhymed, with greater priming being produced, and to a similar extent, when the noun was repeated. Children only differed from adults in their susceptibility to syntactic priming, showing reliably greater priming across all conditions. These results suggest that 3- and 4-year olds have representations of noun phrase structure that are, as abstract and as affected by phonological similarity as adult’s syntactic representations, but benefit more from the facilitating effects of priming.