Alma Veenstra

Adventures of a psycholinguist

Resisting attraction

We propose that attraction errors in agreement production (e.g., the key to the cabinets are missing) are related to two components of executive control: working memory and inhibitory control. We tested 138 children aged 10 to 12, an age when children are expected to produce high rates of errors. To increase the potential of individual variation in executive control skills, participants came from monolingual, bilingual, and bidialectal language backgrounds. Attraction errors were elicited with a picture description task in Dutch and executive control was measured with a digit span task, Corsi blocks task, switching task, and attentional networks task.

Overall, higher rates of attraction errors were negatively associated with higher verbal working memory and, independently, with higher inhibitory control. To our knowledge,
this is the first demonstration of the role of both working memory and inhibitory control in attraction errors in production. Implications for memory- and grammar-based models are discussed.

Read the article here: Veenstra, A., Antoniou, K., Katsos, N., & Kissine, M. (2018, April 19). Resisting Attraction: Individual Differences in Executive Control Are Associated With Subject–Verb Agreement Errors in Production. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. Advance online publication.

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XPrag poster

When children accept under-informative statements: Lack of competence or Pragmatic Tolerance?

Experimental Pragmatics Conference 7

21 – 23 June 2017

University of Cologne, Germany

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Executive control and agreement errors

When I was running earlier subject-verb agreement experiments, I noticed that some people make a lot more agreement errors than others. Although the overall mean error rates were similar to the existing literature, I became intrigued by the large individual variation in agreement production.

Some studies had already shown (some more convincingly than others) that working memory might have something to do with it. We also hypothesized that inhibitory control might prove useful in producing correct agreement. Remember the sentence “the key to the cabinets are missing”? Whereas the number of the head noun has to te kept active until the point in time where the agreement link with the verb is made, the number from the local noun has to be inhibited so that the verb does not accidentally agree with the local noun.

We tested this hypothesis with two groups of children: monolingual Dutch speakers and bilingual French-Dutch speakers. Some studies have suggested that bilinguals have better executive control skills than monolinguals. If these skills are needed for agreement, bilinguals might be better at agreement production as well.

All children completed a agreement production task (which we first introduced here), a verbal and a non-verbal working memory task, a switch task, and the Attentional Networks Task. A bit to our surprise, the monolingual and bilingual children did not differ in their executive control skills or in their agreement error rates. However, we did find overall correlations of verbal working memory with agreement error rates: children with a higher working memory made fewer errors. Although there was a trend for inhibitory control in the hypothesized direction, this effect did not reach significance. More children are being tested to see whether this is a power issue.

Read the original article:

Veenstra, A., Antoniou, K., Katsos, N., & Kissine, M. (2017). The role of executive control in agreement attraction in monolingual and bilingual children. Proceedings of the 41st annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, 706-717.

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BUCLD poster

Resisting Attraction: The Role of Executive Control in Monolingual, Bilingual, and Bi-Dialectal Children

Boston University Conference on Language Development 41

4-6 November 2016

Boston University, United States

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Notional and grammatical number in subject-verb agreement

In an earlier paper, we have argued that for subject-verb agreement, not only the grammatical number properties of the subject phrase are important, but also the notional number properties. Speakers make agreement errors when a grammatically singular head noun is combined with a grammatically plural local noun: #The bowl with the stripes are broken (versus The bowl with the stripe is broken). But more errors are also made when a grammatically singular head noun is combined with a notionally plural subject phrase: #The bowl with the spoon are broken (versus The bowl with the stripe is broken). This notional number mismatch effect appears to be additive to the grammatical number mismatch effect (attraction). In this paper, we investigated whether the two factors work independently from each other, by observing the change in agreement error rates when the notional number is made more salient.

One group of presentation1participants heard subject phrases with nouns that matched and mismatched in grammatical number, and subject phrases in which the notional number matched and mismatched with the head noun. Participants had to press a button for the singular or plural verb phrase with which they wished to continue the sentence. Another group of participants heard the same subject phrases, while being presented with a drawing of that subject phrase. This drawing made the notional number of the phrase very clear.

There were effects both of grammatical and notional number mismatch, which did not interact. Moreover, the notional number effect was stronger in the group that saw the drawings, whereas the grammatical number effect was identical across both groups. This suggests that notional and grammatical number information each have their independent influences on the agreement process.

Read more:

Veenstra, A., & Acheson, D. J. (2016). Semantic integration and subject-verb agreement: Independent effects of notional and grammatical number. Studies of the Belgian Linguistics Circle, 10:5.

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The acquisition of clitics and pronouns

This study develops a single elicitation method to test the acquisition of third-person pronominal objects in 5-year-olds for 16 languages. This methodology allows us to compare the acquisition of pronominals in languages that lack object clitics (“pronoun languages”) with languages that employ clitics in the relevant context (“clitic languages”), thus establishing a robust cross-linguistic baseline in the domain of clitic and pronoun production for 5-year-olds. High rates of pronominal production are found in our results, indicating that children have the relevant pragmatic knowledge required to select a pronominal in the discourse setting involved in the experiment as well as the relevant morphosyntactic knowledge involved in the production of pronominals. It is legitimate to conclude from our data that a child who at age 5 is not able to produce any or few pronominals is a child at risk for language impairment. In this way, pronominal production can be taken as a developmental marker, provided that one takes into account certain cross-linguistic differences discussed in the article.

Read the original article:

Varlokosta, S., Belletti, A., Costa, J., Friedmann, N., Gavarro, A., Grohmann, K. K., Guasti, M. T., Tuller, L., Lobo, M., Anđelković, D., Argemí, N., Avram, L., Berends, S., Brunetto, V., Delage, H., Ezeizabarrena, M-J., Fattal, . I., Hamann, E., van Hout, A., Jensen de Lopez, K., Katsos, N., Kologranic, L., Krstić, N., Kuvac Kraljevic, J., Miękisz, A., Nerantzini, M., Queraltó, C., Radic, Z., Ruiz, S., Sauerland, U., Sevcenco, A., Smoczynska, M., Theodorou, E., van der Lely, H., Veenstra, A., Weston, J., Yachini, M. & Yatsushiro, K. (2016). A cross-linguistic study of the acquisition of clitic and pronoun production. Language Acquisition, 23(1), 1-26.

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Parallel planning and agreement

We know that speakers make agreement errors when the subject phrase consists of a singular head noun followed by a plural local noun (e.g., the key to the cabinets are missing). It has been suggested that more agreement errors are made when these two mismatching nouns are planned simultaneously before speech onset, compared to when they are planned one-by-one: the singular and plural number features would be active simultaneously and lead to more interference, and thus, to more errors.

We tried to find out whether this statement is true. In a picture description task with eye-tracking, we asked participants to name two sets of pictures: a head noun and a local noun, and complete the sentence with a color adjective. This lead to sentences such as “the apple next to the cars is green.” To make sure agreement errors were made, the head and local nouns differed in number. To make sure that the two nouns were planned in parallel, the pictures were located at such a short distance, that the second picture could be processed while focusing on the first. Of course, there was also a condition in which the pictures were located at a large distance where simultaneous processing was much more difficult. The next step was to make sure that this manipulation indeed affected the planning strategy. We used pictures that were semantically related and unrelated. We predicted to find semantic interference (when speech onsets and gaze durations take longer because it is harder to name two similar pictures, compared to unrelated pictures) in the close condition, and not in the far condition. Then, you can compare the agreement error rates between the parallel and sequential planning conditions.

First of all, agreement errors were made for items in which the head and local noun differed in number (both for singular and plural head nouns). Second, we found semantic interference in the close condition, and not in the far condition. This suggests that we were succesful in creating a parallel and a sequential planning condition. However, the error rates did not differ between those conditions. Parallel planning of mismatching nouns does not seem to increase error rates.

Read the original article:

Veenstra, A., Meyer, A. S., & Acheson, D. J. (2015). Effects of parallel planning on agreement production. Acta psychologica, 162, 29-39.


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That was UICM5!

Thanks to co-organizers Fanny Stercq and Nicolas Ruytenbeek, assistants Isabelle Lorge and Marlein Rusch, and everyone who participated, it was a very interesting two days!

Click here to find the program book with abstracts


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UICM5 poster

Cognitive and Linguistic Development in Bilinguals and Bi-dialectals

5th Edition of Utterance Interpretation and Cognitive Models

24 & 25 September 2015

Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

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UICM5 news!

Finally some UICM5 news!

We have been working hard to put together an exciting program for our upcoming conference. It promises to be two very interesting days of talks and posters on the impact of bilingualism: an excellent opportunity to learn about the state of the art in an intimate setting in lovely (and multilingual) Brussels.

We managed to include one more key note speaker: Sue Fletcher-Watson from the University of Edinburgh will tell us all about bilingualism in autism. Her talk completes the line up of key note talks which already included Ton Dijkstra (NL), Istvan Kecskes (US), Napoleon Katsos (UK), and Antonella Sorace (UK).

A provisional schedule can be found on the conference website, HERE.

Registration for presenters has opened, and the general registration is now open as well. To register, please download and fill out the registration form and return to Deadline for the general registration is September 1st.

We have some space for additional poster presentations, please drop us a line at if you are interested!

Hope to see you in Brussels on 24-25 September!

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