Project C04 "The role of non-linguistic cognitive abilities in children’s negation processing"

Principal investigators: Prof. Angela Grimm, Prof. Barbara Kaup & Dr. Yvonne Portele

Studies show that children struggle to understand negation up to age five or six, and even for adults, negative sentences are more difficult to process than the corresponding affirmative sentences. We hypothesize that the specific difficulties that children face with negation processing stem from the fact that central cognitive abilities required by negation processing are still under development. In particular, this project aims to shed light on the role of Executive functions (EF) and Theory of mind (ToM) abilities in children’s processing of negation. The project tests the hypothesis that EF abilities are required to manage the activation of two opposing representations that are typically involved in negation processing (the representation of the factual and non-factual states of affairs) and that ToM abilities are a prerequisite for a full understanding of negation including pragmatic reasoning processes related to figuring out speaker intention. Our participants, German-speaking monolingual children aged 3;6 to 6;5 years and adult controls, will be tested in two work packages, one focusing on EF and the other focusing on ToM abilities. We will conduct experiments with a mixture of different paradigms. In addition to a production experiment, where participants construct contexts to negated and affirmative sentences, and a sentence-continuation task, where participants provide information regarding their interpretations of negative sentence fragments, we will focus on negation-related processing difficulties in eye tracking paradigms. In a number of experiments, we specifically target general processing difficulties as indicated by pupil dilation (pupillometry), as well as more specific difficulties related to arriving at a representation of the factual state of affairs when processing negative sentences (visual-world paradigm with picture-matching task). Our results will contribute to a better understanding of the general properties underlying the acquisition and processing of negation in children and adults and help to answer the question of how cognitive procedures interact with negation.

In potential second or third funding periods we will look at adults with less developed ToM capacities and extend our investigations to other syntactic structures (e.g., cleft-sentences). Cleft sentences are of interest because the negative versions (e.g., It was John who did not eat the soup) apparently do not trigger the activation of the non-factual state of affairs. Furthermore, we plan to compare processing of negation to other pragmatic phenomena involving the activation of different alternatives (e.g., focus particles) and we will extend our investigations to language production.