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Children’s and adults’ production of when-clauses (Zhang et al., 2023)

posted on 2023-10-30, 13:53 authored by Shijie Zhang, Bianca Junge, Elena Lieven, Silke Brandt, Anna Theakston

Purpose: This is the first study to investigate the combined effects of processing-based factors (i.e., clause length and clause order) and discourse-pragmatic factors (i.e., information structure) on children’s and adults’ production of adverbial when-clauses.

Method: In a sentence repetition task, 16 three-year-old and 16 five-year-old children as well as 17 adults listened to and watched an animated story and then were asked to repeat what they had just heard and seen. Each story contained an adverbial when-clause and its main clause. The sentences were manipulated for their clause order, information structure, and clause length.

Results: Adults tended to change main–when clause orders to when–main in their repetitions, and they showed a strong preference for the given–new order of information. In contrast, 3-year-olds tended to change when–main clause orders to main–when, and they showed a preference for the new–given order of information. In addition, 3-year-olds tended to produce short–long clause orders irrespective of what they had heard, whereas adults produced both short–long and long–short orders in line with the input. In general, 5-year-olds were more adultlike in their production compared to 3-year-olds.

Conclusions: Young children were strongly affected by processing-based factors in their production of complex sentences. They tended to order main and when-clauses in a way that requires less planning and processing load. However, they have not yet attained an adultlike sensitivity to discourse-pragmatic factors.

Supplemental Material S1. Test sentences for the sentence repetition task.

Supplemental Material S2. Significant effects and interactions in the final model of the factors influencing participants’ changes of clause length (in syllables).

Supplemental Material S3. Pairwise comparisons of the effect of input clause order on each age group’s changes of clause order.

Supplemental Material S4. Pairwise comparisons of the effect of input information order on each age group’s changes of information order.

Supplemental Material S5. Pairwise comparisons of the effects of input clause length and input information order on each age group’s changes of clause length (in words).

Zhang, S., Junge, B., Lieven, E., Brandt, S., & Theakston, A. (2023). The competition between processing and discourse-pragmatic factors in children’s and adults’ production of adverbial when-clauses. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. Advance online publication.


This study was supported by a Max Planck PhD studentship, awarded to Bianca Junge, and by the Economic and Social Research Council Grant ES/S007113/1, awarded to Anna Theakston, Elena Lieven, and Silke Brandt.