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Slide Slam B11

Semantic and syntactic specialization during auditory sentence processing in 7-8-year-old children

Slide Slam Session B, Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 12:30 - 3:00 pm PDT Log In to set Timezone

Jin Wang1, Neelima Wagley1, Mabel Rice2, James Booth1; 1Vanderbilt University, 2University of Kansas

Previous studies indicate that adults show specialized syntactic and semantic processes in both the temporal and frontal lobes during language comprehension. Neuro-cognitive models of language development argue that this specialization appears earlier in the temporal than the frontal lobe. However, there is little evidence supporting this progression. Our recently published study (Wang, Rice & Booth, 2020), using multivoxel pattern analyses (MVPA), detected that children as young as 5- to 6-years-old exhibit specialization and integration in the temporal lobe, but not the frontal lobe. In the current study, we used the same approach to examine semantic and syntactic specialization in children ages 7 to 8 years old. This project is a registered report with an in-principal acceptance and represents an important step forward in testing neuro-cognitive models of language processing in children. Seventy-six children [M(SD)age = 7.35 (0.30), 46 girls] participated in the current study. We used a semantic plausibility judgment task and a syntactic grammaticality judgment task to tap into semantic and syntactic processing during auditory sentence comprehension. In our planned analysis using MVPA, we compared brain activation patterns between correct, error-free, sentences: sentences with no incongruencies in the semantic task and sentences with no grammatical errors in the syntactic task. In the exploratory analyses, we used the same method but compared brain activation patterns between incorrect sentences: sentences with incongruencies between the verb and object in the semantic task and the sentences with finiteness violations in the syntactic task. In addition, we used traditional univariate analyses to compare brain activation between tasks during both correct and incorrect sentence processing. Using MVPA, we found support for semantic specialization in the left MTG for correct sentences and in the triangular part of the left IFG for incorrect sentences. We also found that the left STG played an integration role and was sensitive to both semantic and syntactic processing during both correct and incorrect sentence processing. There was no evidence for syntactic specialization. Although both the temporal and the frontal lobes were activated during correct and incorrect sentence processing, no semantic or syntactic specialization was observed using univariate analyses. Together with our previous study on 5- to 6-year-old children, which showed semantic specialization in the temporal lobe, the current study suggests a developmental progression to semantic specialization in the frontal lobe. Although our study employed tasks that explicitly required syntactic and semantic processing, we still found no support for syntactic specialization in 7- to 8-year-old children. Thus, for the next step, we aim to examine if 9- to 10-year-old children show syntactic specialization as proposed by developmental models of language comprehension.

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