Age-dependent Differences of Visual Context Effects on Real-time Sentence Processing: Implications for Language Processing Accounts

Münster, K. & Knoeferle, P.

Humboldt Universität zu Berlin

Some accounts predict that social cues (e.g., emotional facial expressions) are key for child language acquisition. Other accounts predict that their processing varies across the lifespan. And yet it is unclear whether 4-5-year-olds can already use emotional faces to facilitate real-time language processing. Moreover, it is unclear whether predictions of variation in emotional cue processing across the lifespan are accurate for real-time language processing. Overall, we have no insight into how social and non-social visual cues affect language processing relative to one another and to which extent their effects are age-dependent. Results from three visual-world eye-tracking studies (each N=40) show that 4-5-year-olds, 18-30-year-olds, and 60-90-year-olds make strong use of one cue (depicted actions) for sentence processing. By contrast, only (younger and older) adults used the social cue. Moreover, children and older adults differed from younger adults in the time course of cue effects. Thus (at least in non-interactive settings), the role of social cues in language processing appears somewhat weaker, promoting real-life face-to-face interaction as a key dimension in language processing and learning. The role of other, depicted action, cues, by contrast, appears less dependent on the benefits of socio-emotional engagement that face-to-face interactions add to the comprehension situation.