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Language Acquisition

The field of language acquisition examines the interaction between children and their environment in the acquisition of a first language. 

Language acquisitionists at Maryland are working toward explicit models of the innate contribution of the learner and how this contribution makes it possible for learners to construct a specific grammar of the language to which they are exposed. Because learning mechanisms rely in part on real-time sentence understanding mechanisms, acquisitionists at Maryland are working to specify how psycholinguistic processing contributes to language learning. 

In addition, because the acquisition of linguistic meaning depends on understanding the cognitive systems that interface with language, a growing research area in the department examines the interplay between cognitive and linguistic development. Formally explicit computational models are becoming a widely applied research tool in language acquisition at Maryland. Such models make explicit the relative contribution of the learner and the environment and make it possible to compare alternative hypotheses in novel ways. 

Finally, our research is conducted in a broadly cross-linguistic context, helping us identify how the language learning capacity is robust to the wide range of variation found in the world's languages. Languages currently under investigation include: English, Ewe, Kannada, Korean, Mandarin, Norwegian, Tagalog, Tsez and Japanese. Recent areas of interest include binding constraints, quantification, argument structure, A-bar movement, noun-class learning, phrase structure, attitude verbs and implicature.

Verb learning in 14- and 18-month-old English-learning infants

Ordinarily, verbs in English label events while nouns do not. Angela He and Jeff Lidz show that even 18-month-olds can use this correlation to infer the meanings of novel words, given the understanding that "is _ ing" is a context for verbs.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz
Dates:
The present study investigates English-learning infants’ early understanding of the link between the grammatical category verb and the conceptual category event, and their ability to recruit morphosyntactic information online to learn novel verb meanings. We report two experiments using an infant-controlled Habituation-Switch Paradigm. In Experiment 1, we habituated 14- and 18-month-old infants with two scenes each labeled by a novel intransitive verb embedded in the frame “is ___ing”: a penguin-spinning scene paired with “it’s doking”, a penguin-cartwheeling scene paired with “it’s pratching”. At test, infants in both age groups dishabituated when the scene-sentence pairings got switched (e.g., penguin-spinning—“it’s pratching”). This finding is consistent with two explanations: (1) infants were able to link verbs to event concepts (as opposed to other concepts, e.g., objects) and (2) infants were simply tracking the surface-level mapping between scenes and sentences, and it was scene-sentence mismatch that elicited dishabituation, not their knowledge of verb-event link. In Experiment 2, we investigated these two possibilities, and found that 14-month-olds were sensitive to any type of mismatch, whereas 18-month-olds dishabituated only to a mismatch that involved a change in word meaning. Together, these results provide evidence that 18-month-old English-learning infants are able to learn novel verbs by recruiting morphosyntactic cues for verb categorization and use the verb-event link to constrain their search space of possible verb meanings.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15475441.2017.1285238" target="_blank" class="button">Read More about Verb learning in 14- and 18-month-old English-learning infants

Children's attitude problems: Bootstrapping verb meaning from syntax and pragmatics

How do children learn the meanings of verbs like "think" and "know"? In part by understanding how their meaning relates both to their syntactic distribution, and to the kinds of speech acts they are routinely used to perform.

Linguistics

Dates:
How do children learn the meanings of propositional attitude verbs? We argue that children use information contained in both syntactic distribution and pragmatic function to zero in on the appropriate meanings. Specifically, we identify a potentially universal link between semantic subclasses of attitude verbs, their syntactic distribution and the kinds of indirect speech acts they can be used to perform. As a result, children can use the syntax as evidence about the meaning, which in turn constrains the kinds of pragmatic enrichments they do and do not make in understanding these verbs in conversation.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/mila.12192" target="_blank" class="button">Read More about Children's attitude problems: Bootstrapping verb meaning from syntax and pragmatics

Commitment and Flexibility in the Developing Parser

Akira Omaki's dissertation on active prediction of wh-gaps, and revision of syntactic commitments, in the online language processing of both adults and children.

Linguistics

Dates:
This dissertation investigates adults and children's sentence processing mechanisms, with a special focus on how multiple levels of linguistic representation are incrementally computed in real time, and how this process affects the parser's ability to later revise its early commitments. Using cross-methodological and cross-linguistic investigations of long-distance dependency processing, this dissertation demonstrates how paying explicit attention to the procedures by which linguistic representations are computed is vital to understanding both adults' real time linguistic computation and children's reanalysis mechanisms. The first part of the dissertation uses time course evidence from self-paced reading and eye tracking studies (reading and visual world) to show that long-distance dependency processing can be decomposed into a sequence of syntactic and interpretive processes. First, the reading experiments provide evidence that suggests that filler-gap dependencies are constructed before verb information is accessed. Second, visual world experiments show that, in the absence of information that would allow hearers to predict verb content in advance, interpretive processes in filler-gap dependency computation take around 600ms. These results argue for a predictive model of sentence interpretation in which syntactic representations are computed in advance of interpretive processes. The second part of the dissertation capitalizes on this procedural account of filler-gap dependency processing, and reports cross-linguistic studies on children's long-distance dependency processing. A comparison of the process of anaphor reconstruction in adults and children further suggests that verb-based thematic information is an effective revision cue for children. Finally, distributional analyses of wh-dependencies in child-directed speech are conducted to investigate how parsing constraints impact language acquisition. It is shown that the actual properties of the child parser can skew the input distribution, such that the effective distribution differs drastically from the input distribution seen from a researcher's perspective. This suggests that properties of developing perceptual mechanisms deserve more attention in language acquisition research.

Primary Faculty

Naomi Feldman

Associate Professor, Linguistics

1413 A Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-5800

Jeffrey Lidz

Professor, Linguistics

1413 Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-8220

Colin Phillips

Professor, Linguistics

1413F Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-3082

Andrea Zukowski

Research Scientist, Linguistics

1413 Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-5388

Secondary Faculty

Valentine Hacquard

Professor, Linguistics

1401 F Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-4935

William Idsardi

Professor, Linguistics

1401 A Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-8376

Alexander Williams

Associate Professor, Linguistics, Philosophy

1401 D Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-1607