2018 Sat Poster 6450

Saturday, November 3, 2018 | Poster Session II, Metcalf Small | 3:15pm

Is before easier than after in German, too? Testing the relative influence of iconicity, ambiguity, and language-specific frequencies on the processing of adverbial sentences in German
L. de Ruiter, A. Theakston, E. Lieven, M. Hilton, S. Brandt

Germanic languages like English and German allow two different clause-orders for complex sentences with adverbial clauses, e.g. (1) She jumped before she ran. vs. (2) Before she ran she jumped. In (1), the clause order reflects the order of events in the real world (it is iconic); in (2), the clause order is reversed. Studies in English have shown children understand iconic sentences better than non-iconic ones (e.g., Clark, 1971; Blything, Davies, & Cain, 2015; De Ruiter et al., 2018). In addition, these studies have found that children perform better with before– compared to after-sentences. Clark (1971) suggested that before is acquired earlier, because it carries the semantic feature [+prior], whereas after is [-prior], following the hypothesis that positive members of relational terms are acquired earlier (Donaldson & Wales, 1970). An alternative explanation is that in English, before has a more consistent form-meaning relationship than after, which is also used in other constructions (e.g., “running after the dog”). Furthermore, before is more frequent overall.

To test these two hypotheses, we conducted a replication of De Ruiter et al.’s (2018) study in German, In German, the conjunctions nachdem (‘after’) and bevor (‘before’) are not used in other constructions, and nachdem (‘after’) occurs more than twice as often than bevor (‘before’). If children’s understanding of these terms is primarily influenced by semantic features, German children should perform better with bevor (‘before’), like English children. If it is influenced by meaning ambiguity and language-specific frequencies, German children should perform better with nachdem (‘after’).

We tested 36 German five-year-olds’ and ten adult controls’ comprehension of sentences with nachdem (‘after’), bevor (‘before’), weil (‘because’), and wenn (‘if’) with a forced-choice picture sequence task, systematically manipulating clause order (subordinate-main, main-subordinate; see Table 1). We measured both accuracy and response times (RT), and collected measures of general language ability (SETK 3-5), working memory (WM), and executive function (EF).

Like English children, German children performed better with iconic sentences (see Fig. 1), although their overall accuracy was lower than that of their English peers. They also performed better with bevor-sentences compared to nachdem– and wenn-sentences, again in line with results from English. These results indicate that iconicity is a general semantic principle that affects children’s sentence processing, independent of language. They also lend support to Clark’s original semantic feature hypothesis, and suggest that, at least for adverbials, iconicity is not modulated by language-specific frequencies.

We are currently testing seven-year-old German children to see if the findings hold for older children as well. We will present the full set of results for both age groups, including the RT data and the influence of individual cognitive differences (language ability, WM, EF). We will discuss their theoretical implications for an account of the mechanisms involved in learning complex syntax across different languages, as well as possible explanations for the overall lower performance of the German children.


Blything, Liam. P., Davies, R., & Cain, K. (2015). Young Children’s Comprehension of Temporal Relations in Complex Sentences: The Influence of Memory on Performance. Child Development, 86(6), 1922–1934.

Clark, E. V. (1971). On the acquisition of the meaning of before and after. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 10(3), 266–275.

De Ruiter, L. E., Theakston, A. L., Brandt, S., and Lieven, E.V. (2018). Iconicity affects children’s comprehension of complex sentences: the role of semantics, clause order, input and individual differences. Cognition 171, 202- 224.

Donaldson, M., & Wales, R. J. (1970). On the acquisition of some relational terms. Cognition and the development of language. New York: Wiley, 235-268.