Child Priming of Syntactic Structure – UROP Spring Symposium 2021

Child Priming of Syntactic Structure

Nina Pacheco


Pronouns: She/her/hers

Research Mentor(s): Emily Atkinson, Research Fellow
Research Mentor School/College/Department: Weinberg Institute of Cognitive Science, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
Presentation Date: Thursday, April 22, 2021
Session: Session 2 (11am – 11:50am)
Breakout Room: Room 3
Presenter: 3

Event Link


Past research provides that adults are susceptible to linguistic priming, meaning that the presence of one stimulus, in this case a certain sentence structure, can affect their response to another stimulus, their interpretation and production of said structure in a later sentence (Branigan, Pickering, & McLean 2005), but does it work on children? Through our research in psycholinguistics we are investigating whether or not priming can be used to affect how children hear or produce globally ambiguous sentences such as “The lion scratches the giraffe with the pencil,” in which there could be two interpretations; either the lion uses the pencil as an instrument to scratch the giraffe (instrument bias), or the lion uses his hand to scratch the giraffe, while the giraffe is holding a pencil (modifier bias). In this study we present children ages four and a half to six and a half with an image representing a globally ambiguous sentence and ask them to describe it to a puppet as the puppet chooses the “correct” interpretation, whichever interpretation is being primed. The child and the puppet then trade roles, and the participant is presented with a pair of images that correspond to two possible meanings of a sentence spoken by the puppet. Participants are then asked which image best matches the sentence spoken by the puppet, presenting to researchers their interpretation of the sentence. This study is ongoing, however results thus far have shown that while children naturally appear to prefer the instrument interpretation of these sentences, priming can occur with globally ambiguous sentence structures, as the participants often chose the interpretation that matched the structure (instrument or modifier biased) that they were primed for. The results of this study will help us better understand how children’s language develops in terms of sentence structure and whether or not their current understandings are similar to those of adults.

Authors: Nina Pacheco, Emily Atkinson
Research Method: Data Collection and Analysis

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