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How children compute the syntactic structure of sentences

Trainee Achievements

How children compute the syntactic structure of sentences

In research combining theoretical linguistics, developmental psychology, and psycholinguistics, IGERT trainee Emily Atkinson is studying how children learn to compute, in real time, the syntactic structure of the sentences they hear. In adults, using grammatical knowledge to process sentences a word at a time, as the sentence is heard or read, involves predicting up-coming material and preparing structure to be ready to incorporate that material when it arrives. Atkinson has shown that 5-year-old children do not predict in the way that adults do. She showed this by monitoring the eye movements of children as they spontaneously looked at different images on a static display while hearing a sentence; prediction is revealed by looks to images of items that have not yet been mentioned but which can be predicted on the basis of the portion of the sentence that has so far been heard. She was one of very few to present research on children at the principal sentence-processing conference.