Relative clause comprehension requires figuring out the role of the head noun in the relative clause. English speakers find it easier to understand relative clauses in which the head noun plays the subject role (e.g., The official who interrogated the councilman…) than those in which the head noun plays the object role (e.g., The official who the councilman interrogated…). A number of explanations have been proposed, some of which predict that the same asymmetry should hold in all languages and others of which predict that the direction of the asymmetry should vary across languages, depending on language properties. Mandarin Chinese provides an opportunity to pit different explanations against one another because it has head-final relative clauses, which helps deconfound some of the proposed explanations, but previous studies of Mandarin have produced rather mixed results. In two reading time studies in Mandarin, we find that 1) object relatives are easier to understand than subject relatives, which is the opposite pattern for English and supports the accounts that predict cross-linguistic differences, 2) it is easier to understand a relative clause whose head noun is omitted, as is allowed in Mandarin, if the sentence contains animacy cues that help disambiguate the sentences and 3) a semantic feature such as animacy contributes to similarity-based interference during sentence comprehension.
Springer Processing and producing head-final structures, Chapter 12, pp 241-275