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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 we have investigated 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, modals, presupposition, implicature, and the relation between clause type and speech act category.

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
Affliliate Professor, Philosophy

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
Associate Professor, Philosophy

1401 D Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-1607

Eighteen-month-old infants represent nonlocal syntactic dependencies

Evidence that 18-month olds already represent filler-gap dependencies.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Laurel Perkins *19 (UCLA)
Dates:

The human ability to produce and understand an indefinite number of sentences is driven by syntax, a cognitive system that can combine a finite number of primitive linguistic elements to build arbitrarily complex expressions. The expressive power of syntax comes in part from its ability to encode potentially unbounded dependencies over abstract structural configurations. How does such a system develop in human minds? We show that 18-mo-old infants are capable of representing abstract nonlocal dependencies, suggesting that a core property of syntax emerges early in development. Our test case is English wh-questions, in which a fronted wh-phrase can act as the argument of a verb at a distance (e.g., What did the chef burn?). Whereas prior work has focused on infants’ interpretations of these questions, we introduce a test to probe their underlying syntactic representations, independent of meaning. We ask when infants know that an object wh-phrase and a local object of a verb cannot co-occur because they both express the same argument relation (e.g., *What did the chef burn the pizza). We find that 1) 18 mo olds demonstrate awareness of this complementary distribution pattern and thus represent the nonlocal grammatical dependency between the wh-phrase and the verb, but 2) younger infants do not. These results suggest that the second year of life is a period of active syntactic development, during which the computational capacities for representing nonlocal syntactic dependencies become evident.

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Social inference may guide early lexical learning

Assessment of knowledgeability and group membership influences infant word learning.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman, William Idsardi
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Alayo Tripp *19
Dates:

We incorporate social reasoning about groups of informants into a model of word learning, and show that the model accounts for infant looking behavior in tasks of both word learning and recognition. Simulation 1 models an experiment where 16-month-old infants saw familiar objects labeled either correctly or incorrectly, by either adults or audio talkers. Simulation 2 reinterprets puzzling data from the Switch task, an audiovisual habituation procedure wherein infants are tested on familiarized associations between novel objects and labels. Eight-month-olds outperform 14-month-olds on the Switch task when required to distinguish labels that are minimal pairs (e.g., “buk” and “puk”), but 14-month-olds' performance is improved by habituation stimuli featuring multiple talkers. Our modeling results support the hypothesis that beliefs about knowledgeability and group membership guide infant looking behavior in both tasks. These results show that social and linguistic development interact in non-trivial ways, and that social categorization findings in developmental psychology could have substantial implications for understanding linguistic development in realistic settings where talkers vary according to observable features correlated with social groupings, including linguistic, ethnic, and gendered groups.

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Japanese children's knowledge of the locality of "zibun" and "kare"

Initial errors in the acquisition of the Japanese local- or long-distance anaphor "zibun."

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz, Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Naho Orita *15, Hajime Ono *06
Dates:

Although the Japanese reflexive zibun can be bound both locally and across clause boundaries, the third-person pronoun kare cannot take a local antecedent. These are properties that children need to learn about their language, but we show that the direct evidence of the binding possibilities of zibun is sparse and the evidence of kare is absent in speech to children, leading us to ask about children’s knowledge. We show that children, unlike adults, incorrectly reject the long-distance antecedent for zibun, and while being able to access this antecedent for a non-local pronoun kare, they consistently reject the local antecedent for this pronoun. These results suggest that children’s lack of matrix readings for zibun is not due to their understanding of discourse context but the properties of their language understanding.

Read More about Japanese children's knowledge of the locality of "zibun" and "kare"