Syntactic and Prosodic Computations in the Resolution of Relative Clause Attachment Ambiguity by English-French Learners
This study investigates the manner in which syntax, prosody, and context interact when second- and fourth-semester college-level English-French learners process relative clause (RC) attachment to either the first noun phrase (NP1) or the second noun phrase (NP2) in complex nominal expressions such as le secrétaire du psychologue qui se promène (au centre ville) “the secretary of the psychologist who takes a walk (downtown).” Learners’ interpretations were affected by the length of the RC, specifically its phonological weight. Effects of intonation contour were found only in a subset of learners. In a response time (RT) experiment that manipulated contexts, fourth-semester learners showed a final bias for NP1 attachment in interpretation but an initial RT bias for NP2 attachment. Second-semester learners also produced a NP2 attachment bias in RTs, but no asymmetry in interpretation was found. We argue that the processing of RC attachment by English-French learners requires a task-specific algorithm that implicates autonomous syntactic and prosodic computations and specific interactions among them.