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.
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There is a simplicity bias when generalising from ambiguous data
How do phonological learners choose among generalizations of differing complexity?
How exactly do learners generalize in the face of ambiguous data? While there has been a substantial amount of research studying the biases that learners employ, there has been very little work on what sorts of biases are employed in the face of data that is ambiguous between phonological generalizations with different degrees of complexity. In this article, we present the results from three artificial language learning experiments that suggest that, at least for phonotactic sequence patterns, learners are able to keep track of multiple generalizations related to the same segmental co-occurrences; however, the generalizations they learn are only the simplest ones consistent with the data.
Hope for syntactic bootstrapping
Some mental state verbs take a finite clause as their object, while others take an infinitive, and the two groups differ reliably in meaning. Remarkably, children can use this correlation to narrow down the meaning of an unfamiliar verb.
We explore children’s use of syntactic distribution in the acquisition of attitude verbs, such as think, want, and hope. Because attitude verbs refer to concepts that are opaque to observation but have syntactic distributions predictive of semantic properties, we hypothesize that syntax may serve as an important cue to learning their meanings. Using a novel methodology, we replicate previous literature showing an asymmetry between acquisition of think and want, and we additionally demonstrate that interpretation of a less frequent attitude verb, hope, patterns with type of syntactic complement. This supports the view that children treat syntactic frame as informative about an attitude verb’s meaning
Filler-gap dependency comprehension at 15 months: The role of vocabulary
New evidence from preferential looking suggests that 15 month olds can correctly understand wh-questions and relative clauses under certain experimental conditions, but perhaps only by noticing that a verb is missing an expected dependent.
15-month-olds behave as if they comprehend filler-gap dependencies such as wh-questions and relative clauses. On one hypothesis, this success does not reflect adult-like representations but rather a “gap-driven” interpretation heuristic based on verb knowledge. Infants who know that feed is transitive may notice that a predicted direct object is missing in Which monkey did the frog feed __? and then search the display for the animal that got fed. This gap-driven account predicts that 15-month-olds will perform accurately only if they know enough verbs to deploy this interpretation heuristic; therefore, performance should depend on vocabulary. We test this prediction in a preferential looking task and find corroborating evidence: Only 15-month-olds with higher vocabulary behave as if they comprehend wh-questions and relative clauses. This result reproduces the previous finding that 15-month-olds can identify the right answer for wh-questions and relative clauses under certain experimental contexts, and is moreover consistent with the gap-driven heuristic account for this behavior.