CUNY 2014

Here’s my poster from CUNY 2014 (Columbus, OH): CUNY 2014 Processing Negation

And the submitted abstract:

Young children’s comprehension of negation

Tracy Brookhyser, Roman Feiman, & Jesse Snedeker (Harvard University)

Negation is a crucial test case for understanding incremental semantic interpretation, because its compositional representation is inconsistent with expectations generated by lexical items (see e.g. Panizza, 2012). Early processing studies found negative sentences were initially interpreted like their affirmative counterparts, raising the possibility that early predictive processing is associative (Kaup, Lüdtke & Zwaan, 2006; Fischler, et al., 1983). However, subsequent studies with richer discourse context found adults can rapidly integrate negation into their sentence interpretation (Nieuwland & Kuperberg, 2008; Tian, Breheny & Ferguson, 2010). No such result exists with children, and recent evidence suggests children 3 and younger do not process negation incrementally (Nordmeyer & Frank, 2013). We used the visual world paradigm to examine online sentence comprehension. Children heard a story, with corresponding pictures, which established a discourse context for both the negative and affirmative sentences (e.g. DW plans to color two stars but is interrupted), then heard the critical sentence and response prompt (e.g. “DW didn’t color/colored one of the stars. Which one was it?”). We previously found adults show incremental interpretation of negation in these contexts. Adapting this method to children, we found older children (n = 16, M = 42 mos) and younger children (n = 28, M = 31 mos) performed differently (Fig 1). In our online measures, we analyzed the proportion of fixations to the affirmative target (e.g. the colored star) for the time between VP offset and NP onset. In older children, a mixed effects model found solely an effect of polarity (p = .01). In younger children, there was an interaction between vocabulary, measured by MCDI, and polarity (p = 0.01). There was a marginal effect of polarity among younger children with higher MCDI scores (p = .07). In offline measures, older children’s picture selection was above chance in affirmative (77%) and negative (86%) trials, but younger children performed at chance in affirmative (60%) and negative (52%) trials, despite good performance in unambiguous practice trials (81%). Overall, results suggest 2-year-olds have difficulty resolving competition from two similar referents, regardless of polarity, though those with higher vocabularies may do somewhat better. 3-year-olds do not appear to have particular difficulty interpreting negation. Critically, we find no evidence that initial interpretation is associative (e.g. early affirmative fixations in both conditions). In this context, negative utterances are interpreted as quickly and accurately as affirmatives, suggesting incremental compositional processes in both cases.

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