Argument Roles in Adult and Child Comprehension

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Language comprehension requires comprehenders to commit rapidly to interpretations based on incremental and occasionally misleading input. This is especially difficult in the case of argument roles, which may be more or less useful depending on whether comprehenders also have access to verb information. In children, a combination of subject-as-agent parsing biases and difficulty with revising initial misinterpretations may be the source of persistent misunderstandings of passives, in which subjects are not agents. My experimental investigation contrasted German five-year-olds’ argument role assignment in passives in a task that combined act-out and eye-tracking measures. Manipulating the order of subject and voice (Exp. 4.1, 4.3) did not impact German learners’ success in comprehending passives, but providing the cue to voice after the main verb (Exp. 4.2) led to a steep drop in children’s comprehension outcomes, suggesting that the inclusion of verb information impacts how young comprehenders process argument role information.

In adults, many studies have found that although argument role reversals create strong contrasts in offline cloze probability, they do not elicit N400 contrasts. This may be because in the absence of a main verb, the parser is unable to use argument role information. In an EEG experiment (Exp. 5.1), we used word order to manipulate the presence or absence of verb information, contrasting noun-noun-verb reversals (NNV; which cowboy the bull had ridden) with noun-verb-noun reversals (NVN; which horse had raced the jockey). We found an N400 contrast in NVN contexts, as predicted, but surprisingly, we also found an N400 contrast in NNV contexts. Unlike previous experimental materials, our stimuli were designed to elicit symmetrically strong and distinct verb predictions with both canonical and reversed argument role assignments. These data suggest that adult comprehenders are able to overcome the absence of a main verb when probability distributions over combined verb-argument role information can contribute to generating role-specific verb candidates.

The overall investigation suggests that prediction and comprehension of argument role information is impacted by the presence or absence of verb information, which may allow comprehenders to bridge the divide between linguistic representations and world knowledge in real-time processing.