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Abstract

How does the development and consolidation of perceptual, attentional, and higher cognitive abilities interact with language acquisition and processing? We explored children's (ages 5–17) and adults’ (ages 18–51) comprehension of morphosyntactically varied sentences under several competing speech conditions that varied in the degree of attentional demands, auditory masking, and semantic interference. We also evaluated the relationship between subjects’ syntactic comprehension and their word reading efficiency and general ‘speed of processing’. We found that the interactions between perceptual and attentional processes and complex sentence interpretation changed considerably over the course of development. Perceptual masking of the speech signal had an early and lasting impact on comprehension, particularly for more complex sentence structures. In contrast, increased attentional demand in the absence of energetic auditory masking primarily affected younger children's comprehension of difficult sentence types. Finally, the predictability of syntactic comprehension abilities by external measures of development and expertise is contingent upon the perceptual, attentional, and semantic milieu in which language processing takes place.