Laboratory for Developmental Language Studies
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  spring 2016          
Word learning

How do children learn the meaning of words? Do they approach the word learning process with an expectation that they will discover certain patterns or meanings? What kind of calculations do they perform over the linguistic input they receive? How does the language they are acquiring influence their linguistic and cognitive development over time? How does language direct their attention?

These questions drive our research with young language learners, since they probe fundamental aspects of how we as human beings learn language, and what the transformative power of language is. Our focus is on syntax and semantics (structure and meaning). Our topics of investigation include adjectives, adverbs, verbs, and number words.

Word meaning and Sentence interpretation

What meaning do children assign to the words they have acquired? Are these meanings different from the ones that adults have for the same words? How can we account for these meanings by appealing to advances in linguistic theory? How do children and adults assign a truth value to a proposition expressed by a sentence in which such words appear? Are they aware that a sentence can have more than one meaning as a result of particular grammatical operations? Are they constrained by their grammar to only get the meanings that are grammatical (and not those that aren't)? How does the need to process sentences in real time in the course of a conversation interact with this more abstract linguistic knowledge?

In our work with preschoolers and their adult counterparts, we investigate how participants interpret predicates such as big, long, tall, and round, number words such as two, and quantifiers such as every. All of these words are especially interesting because of the restrictions they have in their application, how they are interpreted in a discourse context, and the way in which they interact with other words in a sentence.

It may seem unsurprising that we ask college-age students to interpret sentences with relative clause, verb phrase ellipsis, partitive constructions, appositives, auxiliary modals, and so forth. After all, they've had years of experience and training in using and interpreting these linguistic items. However, it may seem amazing that we ask 3- to 5-year-olds to interpret many of the same constructions, and in many cases, they perform just as well as their older counterparts! When they get derailed or arrive at an unexpected interpretation, we get excited, because this mistmatch between children and adults may tell us something about the development of language, the development of the sentence processor, the nature of the input, acquisition of other knowledge, or any combination of these things.

Sound, meaning, and context

When we produce a sentence, do we provide listeners with surface-level cues to sentence meaning in the form of prosodic and acoustic information? If we do, can and do listeners use this information to arrive at the meaning we intended? Does the grammar require a particular prosodic contour for particular sentence types? If so, can and do we override this requirement as a result of other (perhaps non-grammatical) factors? Do children, like adults, recognize a benefit to altering the sound quality of their speech for the purpose of clear communication in a discourse context?

In a relatively new line of work (at least for us) we are investigating the relationship between sound (prosody and phonetic information) and meaning. In some cases, we are interested in how syntactic information can be captured or realized by surface-level cues. In other cases, we are interested in how speakers can favor a sentence interpretation using such cues, and how their chosen production also reflects other salient information about the discourse. Our work with children has asked whether children (either implicitly or explicitly) alter their projection of individual words based on the context in which these words are produced--and whether adults can perceive the difference.

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