Investigating the relationship between individual differences and island sensitivity

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Glossa: a journal of general linguistics


It is well-attested that native speakers tend to give low acceptability ratings to sentences that involve movement from within islands, yet the source of island effects remains an active debate. The grammatical account posits that island effects result from syntactic constraints on wh-movement, whereas the resource-limitation view posits that low ratings emerge due to processing-related constraints on the parser, such that islands themselves present processing bottlenecks. The current study addresses this debate by investigating the relationship between island sensitivity and individual differences in cognitive abilities, as it has been argued that the two views make distinct predictions regarding whether a relationship should hold. Building directly on Sprouse et al. (2012a), we tested 102 native English speakers on 4 island types (whether, complex NP, subject, and adjunct islands) using an acceptability judgment task with wh-questions presented in context to quantify island sensitivity and three cognitive tasks to capture individual differences in working memory (via reading span and counting span task) and attentional control (via a number Stroop task). Our methodological approach takes into account several criticisms that have been made of Sprouse et al.’s (2012a; b) work, particularly the criticisms outlined in Hofmeister et al. (2012a; b). Our results reveal strong island sensitivity effects across all island types. However, individual differences in cognitive abilities do not strongly modulate island sensitivity. These results suggest that island effects emerge due to the existence of syntactic constraints and not because of processing difficulties, in line with the grammatical account.