Investigating the Abstractness of Children’s and Adult’s Syntactic Representations Using a Syntactic Priming Technique
Item statusRestricted Access
The current study uses syntactic priming to assess the abstractness of children’s early syntactic representations. It is based on a study by Bock & Loebell (1990), which showed that adult participants were primed to produce a sentence with a particular constituent structure (locative) following a sentence that shared structure, but not thematic information (passive); evidence that utterances are based on syntactic representations alone, regardless of thematic information. The experiment was carried out with 3- to 4-year-old children and adults, in the form of a dialogue game of snap where the experimenter and participant took turns to describe pictures on a set of cards to each other. During the game, the experimenter’s descriptions acted as primes for the participant’s subsequent description, to test whether the syntax of the experimenter’s description influenced the syntax of the participant’s description. There were four priming conditions; active, passive, locative and baseline. The experiment had a within-subjects design, which presented each participant with all conditions within one experimental session. Results showed that there was a significant main effect of prime for both children and adults: participants were more likely to produce an active sentence following an active prime, and a passive sentence following a passive prime. However, a locative prime was not shown to prime for a passive structure, in adults or children, contra to Bock and Loebell’s results. This finding suggests that syntactic representations are not based wholly on syntax, and perhaps other influences are at play. Methodological differences between the two studies that could account for the difference in results are discussed. The final main result showed that the child participants acted in similar ways to the adults, suggesting that children are responding in an adult-like manner, regardless of whether they build their utterances based on syntax or whether other aspects influence their representations.