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Poster C5, Thursday, November 9, 10:00 – 11:15 am, Harborview and Loch Raven Ballrooms

Priming sentence production and comprehension in aging

Grace Man1, Emily Hosokawa1, Holly Branigan2, Jiyeon Lee1;1Purdue University, 2University of Edinburgh

Structural priming, or the tendency to repeat structure across otherwise unrelated sentences, is thought to reflect life-long language learning (Chang et al., 2006). A distinction is made between lexically-dependent (same verb between primes and targets) and lexically-independent (different verb between primes and targets) priming. It is posited that the former involves the activation of item-specific representations that may involve explicit memory, while lexically-independent priming involves abstract implicit learning (Pickering & Ferreira, 2008). Priming is significantly enhanced by verb repetition between primes and targets in both children and young adults, because of the item-specific boost in explicit memory (‘lexical boost’), although the effect is not always long-lived (Branigan & McLean, 2016; Pickering, McLean & Branigan, 2013; though see Rowland et al., 2012; Peter et al., 2015). Little is known about whether and how structural priming is affected in aging. In healthy aging, explicit memory declines while implicit memory remains relatively stable (Daselaar et al., 2003; Graf, 1990). Accordingly, if the lexical boost effect involves explicit memory, we should expect older adults to demonstrate an attenuated or absent lexical boost due to their reduced explicit memory. We report two ongoing studies designed to test this hypothesis in sentence production (Study1) and comprehension (Study 2). Ten older adults (age M (SD) = 74.1 (7.6) years) were tested in both studies. Prime structure (preferred vs. non-preferred) and verb type (same vs. different) were within-subject variables. In Study 1, participants played a card game in which they took turns describing pictures with an experimenter, who described their pictures using either a preferred (active, prepositional dative) or non-preferred (passive, double-object dative) prime. Results showed a significant priming effect (p <.001), but no prime by verb type interaction. Older adults produced more preferred structures following preferred vs. non-preferred primes in both same (95.42% vs. 65.54%) and different (95.74% vs. 77.58%) verb conditions. In Study 2, comprehension of sentences with an ambiguous prepositional phrase (e.g., the doctor is poking the chef with an umbrella) was examined in a written sentence-picture matching task. Participants were first “primed” with either a verb-modifier (preferred) or object noun modifier (non-preferred) interpretation in a prime trial where only one of the two pictures was the correct choice. Then, the target sentence was presented with two pictures that matched both alternative interpretations of the sentence. Only the priming, not interaction, effect was significant (p = .017). Older adults chose the preferred interpretation more frequently following a preferred than a non-preferred prime in both same (55% vs. 40%) and different (53% vs. 42%) verb conditions. Hence our study did not find a lexical boost effect in sentence production or comprehension, different from what has been shown in children and young adults using similar methods (Branigan & McLean, 2016; Pickering et al., 2013). These results suggest that with aging, formation of explicit memory traces based on recent lexical-syntactic experiences may become weaker. Further theoretical implications and data on the time course of lexical boost will be presented.

Topic Area: Grammar: Syntax

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