|dc.description.abstract||Much work has focused on how children learn the words and grammar of their language, with the emphasis being on how children learn to understand their native language. Little work has actually considered how children learn to speak that language and become active participants within their linguistic community. How do children formulate utterances? The primary aim of this thesis was to explore the morpho-phonological, syntactic and referential mechanisms underlying children’s language production. To do this, I used appropriately adapted experimental methods that have been successfully used to investigate the morpho-phonological, syntactic and referential mechanisms underlying adults’ language production.
Experiments 1 and 2 investigated the syntactic and morpho-phonological encoding mechanisms underlying pre-schoolers’ (and adult controls’) production of simple sentences by tracking participants’ eye movements as they described arrays of two pictures of objects, one of which was preceded by a subliminal cue. In each experiment, we investigated syntactic encoding by analysing how participants chose their starting points, and investigated morpho-phonological encoding by analysing their eye movements as they named each picture. Overall, these experiments suggested that pre-schoolers’ syntactic and morpho-phonological processes are similar to those of adults in important respects.
With respect to syntactic encoding, we found that pre-schoolers’ starting points were affected by our subliminal cue manipulation so that they tended to start their utterance with the cued object. These results suggest that children do not necessarily need to develop a structural plan before they begin lexical selection of a character or object name. With respect to morpho-phonological encoding, we found that pre-schoolers looked at each object in the order they mentioned them (i.e., they looked at the first object prior to naming it and shifted their gaze to the second object just before they began articulating the first object’s name), indicating that they were retrieving each word incrementally. However, pre-schoolers had longer gaze durations for their final word than their first word, indicating that it took longer for them to retrieve this word, whereas adults did not show this same effect. This could indicate that pre-schoolers are less efficient than adults when planning upcoming words whilst speaking.
Finally, Experiments 3-8 explored referential mechanisms and examined how experience with a partner’s language use influenced children’s choice of perspective and associated referential expressions for objects (e.g., horse vs pony). Previous studies in adults have shown that interlocutors will flexibly adopt the same perspective as their partner, and have suggested that there are a range of mechanisms underlying this behaviour. The results from our experiments showed that children were more likely to use the same perspective (and associated choice of name) for an object if their partner had previously used that perspective, even when using that perspective meant overcoming a strong default preferred perspective (e.g., using pony instead of horse). However, children failed to maintain this tendency to reuse their partner’s perspective over time and contexts (E8). We argue that these results show that children’s choice of perspective and associated referential expressions can be influenced by their partner’s language use, but this effect is not long-lasting. Overall, our pattern of results is consistent with a strong influence of underlying priming mechanisms that facilitate lexical representations and associated perspectives during referential communication.
Taken together, the results from our studies suggest that the underlying mechanisms of pre-schoolers’ language production (syntactic, morpho-phonological and referential encoding) are strikingly similar in important ways to those that have been found in adults (using very similar paradigms). However, our pattern of results indicates that pre-schoolers’ production abilities may be less efficient than adults, and as a result, their behaviour may be similar to that of adults under processing load. As a result, they may be particularly susceptible to influences of context (linguistic or non-linguistic) that facilitate retrieval processes. For example, they will immediately reuse a perspective their partner has previously used, but this effect will decay over time as the activation of their partner’s perspective decreases; or they will begin their utterance with a cued object name because the cue directs attention to one object which facilitates retrieval of that name.
Overall, our results provide novel insight into the mechanisms underlying pre-schoolers’ online production.||en