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Context- and Prosody-Driven ERP Markers for Dialog Focus Perception in Children.
The development of language proficiency extends late into childhood and includes not only producing or comprehending sounds, words and sentences, but likewise larger utterances spanning beyond sentence borders like dialogs. Dialogs consist of information units whose value constantly varies within a verbal exchange. While information is focused when introduced for the first time or corrected in order to alter the knowledge state of communication partners, the same information turns into shared knowledge during the further course of a verbal exchange. In many languages, prosodic means are used by speakers to highlight the informational value of information foci. Our study investigated the developmental pattern of event-related potentials (ERPs) in three age groups (12, 8 and 5 years) when perceiving two information focus types (news and corrections) embedded in short question-answer dialogs. The information foci contained in the answer sentences were either adequately marked by prosodic means or not. In so doing, we questioned to what extent children depend on prosodic means to recognize information foci or whether contextual means as provided by dialog questions are sufficient to guide focus processing.Only 12-year-olds yield prosody-independent ERPs when encountering new and corrective information foci, resembling previous findings in adults. Focus processing in the 8-year-olds relied upon prosodic highlighting, and differing ERP responses as a function of focus type were observed. In the 5-year-olds, merely prosody-driven ERP responses were apparent, but no distinctive ERP indicating information focus recognition. Our findings reveal substantial alterations in information focus perception throughout childhood that are likely related to long-lasting maturational changes during brain development.
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