In this experiment, young and elderly adults listened to and recalled sentences that were varied in speech rate through computer-controlled time compression. Half of the sentences at each speech rate were presented with a normal prosodic pattern that reinforced the lexically defined syntactic structure of the sentences, and half were presented with a prosodic contour that conflicted with that structure. Both young and elderly subjects showed better recall for slower speech rates and when prosody was consistent with syntactic structure, but these effects were larger for elderly subjects. When syntax and prosody were placed in conflict, elderly subjects were more likely than the young to reconstruct the lexical content of the presented sentences to produce responses with a syntactic structure consistent with the prosody marking. Although elderly adults may be disadvantaged by rapid speech input rates, we show that they rely on normal prosody to aid syntactic parsing as a step toward language comprehension.
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