Invited Speaker Abstracts

Cynthia Fisher
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Counting the (missing) nouns: Learning verb argument structure from dialogue

To learn the words and the grammar of their native language, children must analyze sentences into their constituent parts, and work out how the composition and arrangement of these constituents convey ‘who does what to whom’. Traditional accounts assume that children solve this problem largely because they can infer the meanings of input sentences. In contrast, the syntactic-bootstrapping account proposes that children use
partial knowledge of syntax to guide early sentence interpretation. My colleagues and I have explored the origins of syntactic bootstrapping, asking how infants could find aspects of syntactic structure meaningful, even before learning much about their native language’s syntax. On our account, children begin with an unlearned bias toward one-to-one mapping between nouns in sentences and participant-roles in events. In this talk, I will summarize our account and then discuss stern challenges that are posed by the complexity and ambiguity of ordinary sentences. For example, in many languages, such as Korean or Japanese, verbs¹ arguments are often missing, making it puzzling how children learn each verb¹s argument structure from such data. I will present new evidence that sheds light on how learners solve this problem. Specifically, I will argue that children integrate probabilistic distributional learning and an expectation of discourse continuity to estimate the intended structure of input sentences, thereby working out their constituent parts.

Roumyana Slabakova
University of Southampton

The Bottleneck Hypothesis Updated

Different properties or parts of the grammar follow different developmental paths, even for children learning their mother tongue (L1). The Bottleneck Hypothesis (BH, Slabakova 2006, 2008) set out to identify what parts of the grammar are easier or more difficult to acquire in a second language (L2). The hypothesis capitalizes on the centrality of grammatical features as they reflect constrained variation among languages of the world. It argues that the functional morphology is the bottleneck in L2 acquisition because it bundles a variety of semantic, syntactic and phonological features that have an effect on the acceptability and the meaning of the whole sentence. The BH originally found support in the demonstration of morphosyntactic and semantic knowledge related to a functional category even if that same category’s morphological expression was not produced reliably (White, 2003; Lardiere 2005). I will discuss new evidence for the BH coming from acquisition as well as processing. Recently, Hopp (2013, 2014) has suggested that there is a Lexical Bottleneck Hypothesis in L2 parsing. Clahsen’s (2013) has argued that there is a qualitative, not only a quantitative, difference between the way L1 and L2 speakers process the functional morphology. In this talk, I will update the BH and discuss how it squares with the claims of a lexical bottleneck and qualitative L1–L2 differences.

Virginia Valian
Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center

Arguments for and against the innateness of language: The good and the irrelevant

Most empirical arguments concerning the innateness of syntax are, I propose, bad arguments, primarily because they are irrelevant.  The empirical arguments contrast with what I will call a logical argument for innateness (the poverty of the stimulus argument) and a logical argument against it (lack of parsimony).  Among the empirical arguments in favor of innateness are:  a) species specificity, b) the existence of a sensitive period, c) independence from intelligence, d) brain localization or lateralization, and e) genetic involvement. In some cases the empirical claims on which the arguments are made appear to be true, but their irrelevance can be seen from the fact that if the claims were false, innateness could still be true.   Among the empirical arguments against innateness of syntax are: a) children’s limited (instead of unlimited) productivity, b) children’s use of formulae, c) the presence of rich input, and d) input frequency effects.  After I review the arguments for and against innateness, I propose a candidate empirical argument.  I separately argue that it is relatively easy to demonstrate nativism, and very hard to demonstrate empiricism.

Karen Miller
Pennsylvania State University

Acquisition of Variably Produced Morphology

This talk focuses on children’s acquisition of variably produced plural morphology. Past studies have found that Spanish-speaking children (from Madrid, Spain) master plural marking on the noun before 24 months of age and shortly after extend the plural marker to other constituents in the DP (Marrero & Aguirre 2003). However, many varieties of Spanish have a phonological process of syllable final /s/ lenition that impacts the production of the plural marker in the input (Lipski 1994). In these varieties, the plural marker is sometimes produced as [s], [h] and sometimes it is omitted, and the level of omissions varies within speakers (e.g. style-shifting), across speakers (e.g. sex, SES) and across varieties of Spanish (e.g. Dominican, Chilean). In this talk, I present data on children’s development of plural morphology in three Spanish varieties: Chilean Spanish, Dominican Spanish, and Mexican Spanish. I situate the findings within Yang’s (2002) Variational Learning Model.

Janna Oetting
Louisiana State University

Variability within Varieties of English: Profiles of Typicality and Impairment

Advances have been made in the study of specific language impairment (SLI) in nonmainstream dialects of English, but there remain significant gaps in our knowledge of these dialects, and of the manifestations of SLI within them. These gaps create barriers to the representation of nonmainstream English-speaking children within applied and theoretical research, impeding the development of clinical services for children who speak these dialects. I will present findings from research with children who speak different nonmainstream dialects of English; African American English spoken in MI, DC, rural LA, and the Gullah/Geechee Corridor of SC, and Southern White English spoken in rural LA by children with and without Cajun heritage. I will present some of the ways in which child speakers of various nonmainstream dialects differ from each other even though their grammars contain the same set of morphological structures, and show some of the ways in which nonmainstream English-speaking children with SLI differ from their same dialect-speaking, typically developing peers. I will conclude by discussing how profiles of typicality and impairment can be used to test hypotheses as to the source(s) and consequence(s) of individual differences within children’s acquisition of grammar.