Animacy-induced conflict in sentence production and comprehension from late childhood to adolescence

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Some animacy configurations elicit parallel semantic interference in adult production and comprehension; for example, phrases with similar animate nouns like the man that the girl is hugging are more difficult than phrases like the doll that the girl is hugging. Yet little is known about how this interference manifests in development, par- ticularly, beyond early childhood. Because frontal brain maturation and cognitive control improvements are known to occur across late childhood and adolescence, we investigated (a) how animacy- induced difficulty in production and comprehension vary with age throughout this period and (b) whether control processes reflected in the backward digit span (BDS) test uniquely explained these differences besides other language measures. In separate tasks, participants (8- to 15-year-old children; N = 91) heard auditory descriptions of depicted characters, produced characters’ descriptions, and completed BDS, vocabulary, and reading experience tests. Results indicated that, as in adults, animacy modulated performance in production and comprehension across all ages. The animacy modulation interacted with age in production but not in comprehension, suggesting age-related animacy differences in production but relatively stable differences in comprehension despite processing speed improvements. Importantly, these age-related production differences were also modulated by the BDS scores; only participants with higher BDS scores displayed age-related animacy differences. Together, these results indicate that comprehension and production develop at different rates and that the development of BDS performance interacts with age-dependent changes in sentence planning from late childhood to adolescence. More generally, the study highlights tasks’ disparities to be explained by cognitive and developmental models of language.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105350
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date2 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2022

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