[PS-1.9] Attraction errors in aging: subject-verb agreement in younger and older speakers of German

Reifegerste, J. , Hauer, F. & Felser, C.

Potsdam Research Institute for Multilingualism, University of Potsdam

Effects of aging on lexical processing are well attested. The picture is less clear for grammatical processing - findings range from equal performance (Tyler et al., 2010) to age-related difficulties with complex structures (Kemper, 1986). Where differences emerge, these are usually ascribed to working-memory (WM) decline (Kemper et al., 2004).
Studies on the influence of WM on agreement attraction errors ('The key to the cabinets was/*were rusty.') have yielded inconclusive results; work on the effects of aging on subject-verb agreement computation is lacking.
In two experiments (RSVP with grammaticality judgment, self-paced reading), we investigated older (OA, mean age = 63) and younger (YA, mean age = 24) adults' susceptibility to agreement attraction errors.
We found longer reading latencies and judgment RTs for OAs. Further, OAs, particularly those with low WM scores, were more accepting of sentences with attraction errors than YAs. OAs also showed longer reading latencies for ungrammatical sentences, again modulated by WM, than YAs. WM did not affect performance in YAs.
OAs seem to have greater difficulty blocking intervening NPs from interfering with the computation of agreement dependencies. In OAs, this process seems modulated by WM, while YA?s performance might be buffered by other executive functions (e.g., inhibitory skills).