Cartoons and comprehension: The effect of visual context on children's sentence processing

  • Author / Creator
    Cooper, Rebecca J
  • Spoken language comprehension is a complex task that involves taking into account many types of information at the same rate as speech unfolds. It is established that adults use both non-linguistic cues, such as visual context, as well as linguistic cues, such as semantic animacy, to maximize successful interpretation of the input during language processing. Previous research has shown that adults can override their usual assumptions of animacy and interpret inanimate entities as the actors in a sentence when provided with a fictional context. To date no research has looked at whether this flexibility of processing extends to children. This study examined how semantic animacy and visual features of the antecedent nouns constrain children’s and adults’ interpretations of ambiguous pronouns during spoken language comprehension. The semantic animacy of the subject and object nouns varied (i.e., animate animals vs. inanimate objects). We manipulated visual animacy by adding eyes and mouths to the inanimate images in half of the trials (e.g., for "There is the couch that the bunny phoned" the image of the couch included facial features). By tracking participants’ eye movements to the images of the subject and object of the preceding sentence we observed how they interpreted the ambiguous agentive pronoun, “he” (e.g., “He was excited to go to the movie that night”). We also collected offline data in the form of verbal responses to pronoun antecedent questions. Eye-tracking data revealed that both children and adults used semantic animacy during pronoun resolution. However time-course and sentence condition differences between participant groups suggest subtle differences between adults and children online. Verbal responses showed that both groups preferred animate nouns as antecedents in final interpretations. Children also displayed main effects of visual context in eye-tracking data, when adults only displayed interactions. Yet pronoun resolution was affected by visual context in both groups’ offline verbal responses. Inanimate nouns were more likely to be considered antecedents when corresponding images were visually animate (i.e., contained facial features). Findings from this study illustrate children’s ability to use visual context during pronoun resolution, as well as illustrate similarities and differences in processing in comparison to adults.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    2017-06:Spring 2017
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Master of Science
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
    • Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders
  • Specialization
    • Speech-language pathology
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
    • Järvikivi, Juhani (Linguistics)
    • Charest, Monique (Communication Sciences and Disorders
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Boliek, Carol (Communication Sciences and Disorders
    • Nicoladis, Elena (Psychology)