Home » Abstract » Ambiguity resolution during online sentence comprehension in monolingual and bilingual children

Ambiguity resolution during online sentence comprehension in monolingual and bilingual children

Tatyana Levari (Harvard University) & Jesse Snedeker (Harvard University)


Garden-path sentences, Syntactic ambiguity, Referential ambiguity, On-line sentence comprehension; Executive Function; Visual world paradigm

Monolingual and bilingual children differ in their language learning environments. Bilinguals split their exposure between two languages, resulting in less experience with each, and have a greater need to monitor language use, possibly leading to a bilingual executive functioning (EF) advantage. In the current study we investigate how these differences affect the development of online sentence comprehension.

Children through age 10 often fail to use top-down information to guide sentence parsing, and subsequently fail to revise their interpretations following inconsistent information. One hypothesis is that these abilities develop with improvements in domain-general EF [1]. Alternatively, these changes may reflect cumulative language experience. Although 5-year-olds have acquired the relevant linguistic structures, they continue to gain processing fluency [2].

In the current study, monolingual and bilingual children (ages 5-7) were given an EF battery, measures of language proficiency (vocabulary and receptive grammar), and a test of syntactic ambiguity resolution, adapted from Trueswell et al (1999) [3]. Participants heard ambiguous and unambiguous sentences (Ambiguity Condition) (e.g. “put the frog [that’s] on the napkin in the box”) while looking at a display containing relevant images, including either 1 or 2 referents for the first noun (Reference Condition).

Preliminary results (n = 37; 20 monolingual; 17 bilingual matched for age, nonverbal IQ and SES) confirm that monolinguals show higher scores on receptive vocabulary (p < 0.05) and grammar (p = 0.05). Despite robust differences between conflict and non-conflict trials, we found no bilingual EF advantage in any of the four EF tasks. Gaze data demonstrates that bilingual children make better use of contextual information. Specifically, in the 2-Referent Ambiguous condition, bilinguals, but not monolinguals, interpret the ambiguous phrase, on the napkin, as a modifier of the object, frog. Specifically, upon hearing the noun (frog), bilinguals look significantly more to the target animal (frog on the napkin), while monolinguals look equally at both the target and non-target animals (p < 0.05). However, monolingual and bilingual participants do not differ in their actions, producing similar numbers of garden-path errors.

Bilingual children show better use of top-down information, despite weaker English language skills. However, the bilingual’s advantage in sentence comprehension is unlikely to reflect differences in EF, since both groups performed equally on all EF measures. We suggest that bilingual children, over the course of language acquisition, may need to rely more on contextual information making them more aware of how language is influenced by context.



[1] Mazuka,R., Jincho,N., & Oishi,H.(2009). Development of executive control and language processing. Language and Linguistics Compass,3(1),59-89.

[2] Fernald,A., Perfors,A., & Marchman,V.A.(2006). Picking up speed in understanding: Speech processing efficiency and vocabulary growth across the 2nd year. Developmental psychology,42(1),98.

[3] Trueswell,J.C., Sekerina,I., Hill,N.M., & Logrip,M.L.(1999). The kindergarten-path effect: Studying on-line sentence processing in young children. Cognition,73(2),89-134.