The effect of animacy on children’s online processing of relative clauses.

Macdonald, R. G., Serratrice, L., Brandt, S.,Lieven, E, &  Theakston, A. The effect of animacy on children’s online processing of relative clauses. Paper presented at Architectures and Mechanisms of Language Processing (AMLaP) 2017, Lancaster, UK. 


Subject relative clauses (SRCs, “the deer that is chasing the cow”) are processed more easily than object relative clauses (ORCs, “the deer that the cow is chasing”), but this difference is diminished by the presence of an inanimate head-noun (Mak, Vonk, & Schriefers, 2002). We investigated the influence of animacy on children’s and adults’ online processing of SRC and ORC sentences. Forty-eight English-speaking children (aged 4;5–6;5) and 32 adults listened to sentences that varied in the animacy of the head-noun (Animate/Inanimate) and the type of relative clause (RC) used (SRC/ORC). Concurrently, while eye movements were monitored, participants saw two images of the same two agents, carrying out reversed actions (e.g. deer chasing cow/cow chasing deer, Figure 1) and were asked to match the picture to the sentence using a game-pad. Both child and adult participants were quicker to respond to SRC sentences and children were more accurate with SRCs (adult performance reached ceiling). As expected, children were significantly more accurate with ORCs with an inanimate head-noun rather than an animate head-noun, but animacy had no effect on the response time for ORCs. Surprisingly, for SRCs, after the onset of the RC (“that…”) children made more looks more quickly to the target in the inanimate rather than animate condition (Figure 2), suggesting greater anticipation for SRCs with inanimate head-nouns. Similarly, adults showed no preference for looks to the SRC-picture in the animate condition but they did in the inanimate condition, although this preference emerged earlier than it did with the children.

The seemingly increased anticipation for SRCs in the inanimate condition may be due to surprisal at inanimate objects acting on animates, or it may be due to the inanimate objects being more distinct from their animate competitors and thus easier to locate more quickly. We are currently investigating these possibilities. Regardless of the cause, our results show that children were slower to attend to the ORC target in the inanimate condition, yet they performed better in this condition. This suggests that duration of looks to the visual target following RC-onset does not predict children’s ability to process RCs.