Working memory in children’s language comprehension (summary)


What was the aim of the study? The authors wanted to find out whether children can incorporate a visual context into auditory processing, and whether they can do this when the language they hear is very complex. The researchers also wanted to see whether children's working memory abilities influenced their comprehension of complex patterns of speech.

Why was the paper written? Listeners must be able to make sense of complex pieces of incoming language, and this skill is called parsing. There is a debate about how children accomplish this. Some researchers believe that children, unlike adults, rely on just the words they hear to work out their meaning and do not use other clues like how a speaker is talking or the context in which the speech occurs. Other researchers think that children process language in much the same way as adults, but their competence is limited by their developing cognitive abilities, such as memory.

What did the authors do? The authors of this study performed an experiment to investigate their aims. They used a language construction called a relative clause to vary the complexity of the language that children heard in the experiment. A relative clause adds extra information to a sentence and includes a missing word that is referred to elsewhere in the sentence but is not repeated in the clause. Examples of the types of sentences used in the experiment are given below (taken from Weighall & Altmann, 2011). The relative clause is italicised in each example, and the position of the words that are not repeated in the clauses is marked with an X.

(a) The pig bumps into the horse that X jumps over the giraffe.

(b) The dog that X jumps over the pig bumps into the lion.

(c) The dog stands on the horse that the giraffe jumps over X.

(d) The lion that the horse bumps into X jumps over the giraffe.

In examples (a) and (c), the relative clauses occur at the end of the sentences, and in examples (b) and (d) the clauses occur in the middle of the sentences. The relative clauses in examples (a) and (b) have unrepeated words (X) that are the subjects of phrases in the clauses, and the clauses in examples (c) and (d) have unrepeated words (X) that are objects of the phrases in the clauses. There is evidence that adults and children find it more difficult to process clauses that are included in the middle of a sentence and whose unrepeated words are the objects of the phrase; so, example (d) is the most difficult kind of sentence with a relative clause to process.

In the experiment, children saw two different pictures and then heard one of these four kinds of sentences. The first picture showed the characters involved in the relative clause. There were two types of the first picture, which were used to give visual context to the sentence that the children later heard. In the first type of picture, the characters performed the action that they did in the relative clause. For example, if a child were to hear example (a) above, this first picture would depict a horse jumping over a giraffe. In the second type, the characters were represented on their own, without performing any action; so, for example (a) above, the picture showed a horse and a giraffe side by side.

Children saw one of these two types pictures, and then they saw another picture of different characters, including all the characters of the sentence they were about to hear. While they looked at this last picture, the children heard one sentence of the types explained above. They were then asked a question about the sentence that required them to understand either the relative clause or the main part of the sentence.

The children in the experiment were divided into a group with a high-span verbal memory and a group with low-span verbal memory. The test that the researchers used for this is reliable and used in many other studies.

What did they find? Children with high-span memory performed better than children with low-span memory. Both groups of children showed poorest performance when answering questions about the main part of a sentence with a relative clause included in its middle. Children also performed better when the first picture they saw showed the characters that were in the relative clause performing an action.

The results also showed that children with a high-span memory were able to use more information about the context to improve their comprehension.

Conclusions: The authors concluded that both groups of children in their study were able to make use of the visual picture context in speech comprehension and that children could do this even for speech that had very complex structures. Children with both high and low memory spans showed this skill, but children with higher-span memory integrated the visual context more fully than the other children. This is in keeping with the idea that children process language in an adult-like way that develops with their increasing cognitive skills.

Things you may want to look into:

working memory

relative clause

Added to site August 2013