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Valian, V. (2013b). Determiners: An empirical argument for innateness. In M. Sanz, I. Laka, & M. Tanenhaus. (Eds.). Language down the garden path: The cognitive and biological basis for linguistic structure (Chapter 14, pp 272-279). New York: Oxford University Press.
Abstract: In this chapter author explores that outline an empirical argument for innate syntax, using determiners as a case study. There are four reasons for the choice of determiners. Every model of acquisition includes the eventual presence of syntactic categories, including determiners, in the child’s grammar. Agreement on the end point avoids the objection that a given linguistics principle or structure is never part of a speaker’s grammar and thus needs no explanation and, a fortiori, needs no innate structure to account for its acquisition. Arguments will be focused on how the child gets to the end point, not on what the end point consists of. Determiners, unlike nouns and verbs, are less directly tied to reference. Determiners have a semantics and a pragmatics, but full knowledge of the pragmatics seems to appear after, rather than before, the syntax of determiners has argued convincingly that experiments that appear to show lack of syntactic knowledge actually instead show difficulty with semantics.
Valian, V. (2014a). Arguing about innateness. Journal of Child Language, 41(Supplement S1, Reflections: 40 years of JCL), 78-92. [Invited contribution for 40th anniversary issue.]
Abstract: This paper lays out the components of a language acquisition model, the interconnections among the components, and the differing stances of nativism and empiricism about syntax. After demonstrating that parsimony cannot decide between the two stances, the paper analyzes nine examples of evidence that have been used to argue for or against nativism, concluding that most pieces of evidence are either irrelevant or suggest that language is special but need not invoke innate ideas. Two pieces of evidence – the development of home sign languages and the acquisition of Determiners – do show not just that language is special but that the child has innate syntactic content. The existential claim that nativism makes – there is at least one innate syntactic idea – is an easier claim to verify than the universal claim that empiricism makes – there are no innate syntactic ideas.
Valian, V. (2014b). Splitting the sexes. [Book review: Lewis Wolpert, Why can’t a woman be more like a man?], Nature, 513, 32.
Valian, V. (2014c). Interests, gender, and science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(2), 225-230.
Interests, gender, and science
Abstract: In this commentary on Nye, Su, Rounds, and Drasgow (2012) and Schmidt (2011), I address the value of occupational interest inventories for understanding sex differences in occupational choice and the extent to which occupational interests are malleable. In particular, I argue (a) that some subscales in interest inventories are too heterogeneous to be given a single label and that the labels that are applied to some subscales are inaccurate and misleading; (b) that “things versus people” is an inaccurate and misleading characterization of a dimension that is frequently associated with interest inventories and linked to sex differences; (c) that vocational interests will be valid predictors of job performance primarily in cases in which the job has been held for some time by a diverse group of people and not in cases in which jobholders have been homogeneous; (d) that sex differences in interests are malleable and sensitive to small and subtle environmental cues; and (e) that women’s interest in math and science will increase if they have a feeling of belonging and an expectation of success.
Valian, V. (2015a). Bilingualism and cognition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 18(01), 3-24. [keynote article]. Two supplemental appendices are available through the journal.
Abstract: The relation between bilingualism and cognition is informative about the connection between language and mind. From the perspective of language, the question is how bilingualism might help or hinder cognition – narrowly interpreted here as executive function. From the perspective of higher cognition, the question is what kinds of experiences improve executive function. Reported cognitive benefits from bilingualism range from none to substantial as a function of age, type of bilingualism (e.g., life-long balanced vs later-onset or infrequent use of the other language), syntactic relation between the two languages, socio-economic and immigrant status, task, and laboratory. To understand the variability and inconsistencies in results with bilingualism, I analyze concepts of executive function and cognitive reserve and examine the range of factors (such as active video game playing, education, musical training, and aerobic exercise) that are known to correlate with or to improve executive function. I suggest that a) “executive function” is a complex set of cognitive processes, the components of which are sometimes minimally correlated with each other, depending on the task; b) bilingualism is inconsistently correlated with superior executive function and delayed onset of dementia; c) all speakers (mono- or bilingual) have non-linguistic ways of improving executive function; and d) benefits from bilingualism – and all cognitively challenging activities – are inconsistent because individuals vary in the number and kinds of experiences they have that promote superior executive function.
Valian, V. (2015b). Bilingualism and cognition: A focus on mechanisms. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 18(01), 47-50. [author’s response to commentators]
Bilingualism and cognition: A focus on mechanisms
Abstract: The goal of my keynote article, “Bilingualism and Cognition” (Valian, 2014), was to resolve the inconsistencies in effects of bilingualism on executive functions, whether the individuals were children, young adults, or old people. To summarize (and sharpen) my argument: 1. Especially in children and young adults, benefits of bilingualism for executive functions are not reliable. In old people, there are benefits for executive functions but contradictory results on delay of cognitive impairment, depending on whether studies are retrospective or prospective. 2. All experiences that have benefits for executive functions and aging – and there are many – yield inconsistent effects. Bilingualism is not alone. 3. Three reasons for inconsistencies in bilingualism and other experiences are: a. Executive function and cognitive reserve are broad cover terms for a variety of mechanisms, most of which are ill-understood. Because we mean different things by ‘executive function’ from one experiment to the next, we can both think we don’t have an effect when we do and think we have an effect when we don’t. b. Tasks are impure: apparently similar tasks measure different aspects of executive function and measure other aspects of cognition as well. Because we lack a good analysis of tasks, we too often do not know what we are measuring. I encourage readers to examine the demos in the supplementary materials of the keynote article to see for themselves what the tasks are like. c. Individuals engage in many different activities that may be on a par with bilingualism in their benefits. 4. Different types of bilingual experience are unlikely to explain the variability of findings, given the inconsistencies in extant data on varieties of bilingualism. 5. There is a benefit of bilingualism, but bilingualism competes with other sources of benefits. Especially for children and young adults, whose daily lives are full of cognitively enriching and challenging experiences, we should expect variability in effects of being bilingual. 6. The way forward is to focus on underlying mechanisms.
Valian, V. (2015c, revision of 2009). Innateness and learnability. In E. Bavin & L. Naigles (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of child language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Valian, V. (2016). Null subjects. In J. Lidz, W. Snyder, & J. Pater (Eds.), Oxford handbook of developmental linguistics (Chapter 17). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Abstract: Null subject phenomena have a special place in syntax and in language acquisition. (‘Null’ subjects are the absence of an overt subject before a verb that is tensed.) The null subject parameter was one of the first to be suggested within the principles-and-parameters framework and was the first to be investigated in child language. As of this writing, we know that there is not just one null subject parameter, nor just two. We know that there is extensive cross-linguistic variation in when subjects do and do not appear, much more variation than the early comparison of English and Italian suggested. The variation is so extensive that there is reason to question whether one should speak of parameters at all in connection with null subjects. Nevertheless, linguistic theory has to account for that variation. The sentential relation ‘subject of’ is a fundamental property of sentences. Just as hypotheses about the syntax of null subjects have proliferated, so have hypotheses about children’s acquisition, and so have hypotheses about the relation between syntactic theory and acquisition theory. This chapter focuses on what we know so far about the cross-linguistic acquisition of subjects and discusses the hypotheses that have been developed to account for the facts of acquisition. It briefly reviews hypotheses about the syntax of null subjects and discusses the relation between syntactic theory and language acquisition.
Valian, V. (2016). When children don’t say what they know: Syntax acquisition and executive function. In D. Barner & A.S. Baron (Eds.), Core knowledge and conceptual change (Chapter 15, pp 261–276). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Abstract: Three case studies—determiners, subjects, and the active–passive relation—are used in this chapter to argue that children’s syntactic knowledge is greater than it appears on the surface. Even when most of children’s speech consists of two-word utterances, their grammars contain genuinely syntactic categories, plus operations that combine and move those categories in ways that are isomorphic with adult grammar. Diagnostic tests can be used to determine if a child has the knowledge at issue, and tests of limited executive functions could help explain why the child’s output seems at variance with that knowledge. The child can use at least two methods to determine what not to include in his or her utterances. The child can use information structure and exclude low-information elements, such as determiners that are not essential for meaning. The child can use already established prosodic structures to fit his or her utterance to, resulting in a failure to include elements that do not fit the prosodic template, such as initial pronominal subjects. With evidence for both competence and performance factors, the child’s behavior can be explained.
Pozzan, L. & Valian, V. ( 2017). Asking questions in child English: Evidence for early abstract representations. Language Acquisition, 24(3), 209-233.
Asking questions in child English: Evidence for early abstract representations
Abstract: We compare the predictions of two different accounts of first language acquisition by investigating the relative contributions of abstract syntax and input frequency to the elicited production of main and embedded questions by 36 monolingual English-speaking toddlers aged 3;00 to 5;11. In particular, we investigate whether children’s accuracy rates across different interrogative structures (main vs. embedded, yes/no vs. wh-, argument vs. adjunct) can be explained by difference in terms of input frequency in parental speech or whether abstract structural factors are needed to account for such asymmetries. In main-clause questions, children correctly invert the order of the subject and auxiliary more often with yes/no than wh-questions, despite a higher input frequency of uninverted yes/no questions. Furthermore, in main-clause wh-questions, inversion rates are higher for argument than adjunct wh-questions, independent of input frequencies. Finally, in embedded-clause questions, children correctly avoid inversion more often in yes/no than wh-questions and show no effect of input frequency or type of wh-word. A significant positive correlation between (correct) inversion rates in main and (incorrect) inversion rates in embedded questions suggests that inversion in embedded contexts stems from rule overgeneralization. Taken together, the results highlight the importance of abstract structural factors in children’s production, above and beyond the role of frequency distributions in the input.
Valian, V. (2016). Putting together bilingualism and executive function. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 6(5), 565-574.
Putting together bilingualism and executive function
Abstract: Three important issues bear on understanding the connection between bilingualism and executive function. The first is the absence of a fine-grained task analysis for executive functions and other cognitive processes. The second is the absence of a theory of the cognitive mechanisms underlying the deployment of two or more languages and thus the absence of a solid basis on which to make predictions about what domain-general performances, if any, bilinguals should excel in. The third is the relation between neural and behavioral consequences of bilingualism. These three issues must be taken in account in trying to understand the variability among findings showing benefits of bilingualism for executive function.
Turning adults into children
Using a web platform, we ask adults to perform different tasks under constraints designed to mimic the constraints that children face.
Computer-assisted experiments over the web
We would like to create experiments that parents can perform with their children over the web.
Automated analyses of child corpora
In summer 2017 we are concentrating on computerized analyses of child corpora. One project examines
the extent to which children’s early productions are similar to their parents’. Our work suggests that even at the beginning of combinatorial speech children abstractly represent syntactic categories and have an abstract – if limited – grammar. Another school of thought suggests that children copy their parents and have little grammatical knowledge. We are trying to answer this question by looking at transcriptions of children’s early speech and their parental input, using both cross-sectional and longitudinal corpora. We examine similarities and differences between children and their parents and also examine how productive children’s early uses of different syntactic categories are.
How Did Clinton Lose? How Do Women Win?
Contrary to the predictions of pollsters and pundits, Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election. Why did she lose? Immediate analyses focused on economic anxiety and dissatisfaction over Clinton’s use of a personal email server. Although those issues were undoubtedly important, this two-part event focuses on an additional factor that has received too little attention: sexism.
Bilingualism and Executive Function: An Interdisciplinary Approach
“The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, with the generous support of the National Science Foundation, is pleased to invite you to a two-day workshop on bilingualism and executive function, to be held on
18-19 May 2015 (Monday and Tuesday) at the CUNY Graduate Center
in New York. The Workshop will immediately precede the International Symposium on Bilingualism-10 at Rutgers University (ISB-10, 20-24 May 2015).
The Workshop is open to everybody, not just those researchers who are interested in presenting a poster.
Attendance is free thanks to the generous support from the National Science Foundation.”
Click here to go to the workshop’s website.
Bencini, G. M. L. & Valian, V., (2008). Abstract sentence representation in 3-year-olds: Evidence from comprehension and production. Journal of Memory and Language. 59, 97-113.
Abstract sentence representation in 3-year-olds: Evidence from comprehension and production
Abstract: We use syntactic priming to test the abstractness of the sentence representations of young 3-year-olds (35-42 10 months). In describing pictures with inanimate participants, 18 children primed with passives produced more passives (11 with a strict scoring scheme, 16 with lax scoring) than did 18 children primed with actives (2 on either scheme) or 12 children who received no priming (0). Priming was comparable to that reported for older children and adults. Comprehension of reversible passives with animate participants before and after priming was above chance but did not improve as a result of priming. Young 3-year-olds represent sentences abstractly, to have syntactic representations for noun, verb, “surface subject”, and “surface object”, to have semantic representations for “agent” and “patient”, and to flexibly map the relation between syntax and semantics. Taken together with research on syntactic categories in 2-year-olds, our results provide empirical support for continuity in language acquisition.
Valian, V. & Wales, R. (1976). What’s what: talkers help listeners hear and understand by clarifying sentential relations. Cognition, 4, 155-176.
What’s what: talkers help listeners hear and understand by clarifying sentential relations
Abstract: It was predicted that a talker would clarify the sentential relations of an utterance if a listener indicated difficulty in hearing and understanding. Subjects read syntactically clear and distorted sentences to a listener (cxperirnenter) in un adjoining room. The experimenter often asked “What?” Subjects changed distorted versions to clear versions, while repeating clear versions essentially as first read. Other subjects were asked to make the sentences clear and simple to understand. The same basic results were obtained. Talkers thus seem to interpret a “What?” partly as a request for clearer sentential relations und respond accordingly. The results indicate that talkers have knowledge of underlying structure. Several alternate explanations can be rejected. A relative derivational theory of complexity, is presented.
Erreich, A. & Valian, V. & Winzemer, J. (1978). Aspects of a theory of language acquisition. Child language, 7, 157-179.
Aspects of a theory of language acquisition
Abstract: This paper presents a hypothesis-testing theory of syntax acquisition. The first section presents our model. We claim that: (I) children learn a transformational grammar, including a set of phrase structure and transformational rules; (2) linguistic universals and Occam’s razor constrain the initial hypothesis space available to the device; (3) hypotheses tested by the device consist of candidate phrase structure and transformational rules; (4) linguistics evidence confirms or disconfirms hypotheses. Specific examples of incorrect phrase structure and transformational hypotheses are presented.
The second section briefly surveys other approaches to language acquisition both syntactic and non-syntactic-and compares them to our model. In the third section, we address several methodological issues: (I) the relevance of linguistic theory to the model: (2) how the model is tested; (3) the domain of the theory.
Valian, V. (1979). The wherefores and therefores of the competence-performance distinction. In W.E. Cooper and E.C.T. Walker (Eds.), Sentence processing: Psycholinguistic studies presented to Merrill Garrett. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erbaum, 1-26.
The wherefores and therefores of the competence-performance distinction
Abstract: How has it happened that the competence-performance distinction has come to be seen as invalid, or if valid, irrelevant, or if relevant, actually harmful to psycholinguistic research? This paper suggest three reasons for the present obloquy of the competence-performance distinction. (a) The grammar of a language does not have an automatic performance interpretation. That is, a model of competence does not contain a specification of a model of performance and does not entail a particular model of performance. (b) Candidate grammars keep changing. (c) In response to these two difficulties, psycholinguistics have attempted to specify performance independently of competence. To the extent that they have been successful and performance is unnecessary and that competence itself is not a useful notion.
Valian, V. (1979). What children say when asked “what?”: A study of the use of syntactic knowledge. Journal of experimental child psychology, 28, 424-444.
What children say when asked “what?”: A study of the use of syntactic knowledge
Abstract: The present study explores two questions: What is the nature of older children’s syntactic knowledge; how is that knowledge used in an everyday speech situation? Six-, eight-, and ten-year-olds repeated grammatical sentences as read by the first experimenter. Half the sentences were syntactically clear, half slightly distorted. Clear versions displayed basic grammatical relations and constituent structure perspicuously. The second experimenter, who sat at the other end of the room, asked “what?” after each sentence. The syntactic changes children might make to accommodate the listener were examined. Although the children made a variety of changes, at all ages they tended to change distorted versions to clear ones, and to repeat clear versions. The results suggest that children’s syntactic knowledge is deeper and more accessible than had been supposed.
Valian, V. (1980). Listening and clarity of syntactic structure. Journal of Phonetics, 8, 327-334.
Listening and clarity of syntactic structure
Abstract: Listeners repeated fully grammatical sentences, exemplifying 12 linguistic constructions, heard though noise. In half the sentences the basic grammatical relations or constituent structure were more clearly displayed than in the matching versions. Although the differences in structure between the two versions were minimal (often just the presence or absence of a function word), the “clear” sentences were correctly repeated on the average 19% more often then the “distorted” sentences were. The results suggest that minor structural cues are important in listening to speech, at least under adverse conditions.
No sooner do we hear the words of a familiar language pronounced in our ears but the ideas corresponding thereto present themselves to out minds: in the very same instant the sound and the meaning enter the understanding: so closely are they united that it is not in out power to keep out the one except we exclude the other also. We even act in all respects as if we heard the very thoughts themselves. (Berkley, 1901,151, rubic51).
Valian, V. (1981). Linguistic knowledge and language acquisition. Cognition, 10, 323-329.
Linguistic knowledge and language acquisition
Abstract: This paper presents several hypotheses about knowledge and knowledge acquisition that are relevant to problems of language acquisition, and in terms of them assesses one aspect of the study of language acquisition and makes suggestions about future progress
Valian, V. (1986). Syntactic Categories in the Speech of Young Children. Developmental Psychology, 22, 562-579.
Syntactic Categories in the Speech of Young Children
Abstract: Examined speech samples from 6 children (aged 2 yrs to 2 yrs 5 mo), with mean lengths of utterance (MLUs) ranging from 2.93 to 4.14, for evidence of 6 syntactic categories: determiner, adjective, noun, noun phrase, preposition, and prepositional phrase. Results indicate that all the Ss showed evidence of all categories, except for the lowest MLU S, whose performance was borderline on adjectives and prepositional phrases. It is suggested that children are sensitive early in life to abstract, formal properties of the speech they hear and must be credited with syntactic knowledge at an earlier point than heretofore generally thought. Results argue against various semantic hypotheses about the origin of syntactic knowledge. It is concluded that the methods and results may be applicable to future investigations of why children’s early utterances are short, the nature of children’s semantic categories, and the nature of the deviance in the speech of language-deviant children and adults.
Valian, V. & Coulson, S. (1988). Anchor points in language learning: the role of marker frequency. Journal of Memory and Language, 27, 71-86.
Anchor points in language learning: the role of marker frequency
Abstract: We examine the role of markers as anchor points in adult learning of a miniature artificial language, with and without an accompanying reference field. Two dialects of the same language were created, differing only in number of grammatical markers and “content” words. In the high-frequency dialect a given marker occurred six times as often as a given content word, while in the low-frequency dialect a given marker occurred one and a half times as often as a given content word. In Experiment 1, without a reference field, subjects in the high-frequency dialect learned the structure of the language easily, but subjects in the low-frequency dialect learned only superficial properties of the language. In Experiment 2, with a reference field, subjects in both conditions learned, but those in the high-frequency condition learned more quickly. We propose that, with or without a reference field, learners use very high-frequency markers as anchor points for distributional analysis. We discuss the implications of our results for first language learning.
Valian, V. (1990). Null subjects: A problem for parameter setting models of language acquisition. Cognition, 35, 105-122.
Null subjects: A problem for parameter setting models of language acquisition
Abstract: Some languages, like English, require overt surface subjects, while others, like Italian and Spanish, allow “null” subjects. How does the young child determine whether or not her language allows null subjects? Modern parameter-setting theory has proposed a solution, in which the child begins acquisition with the null subject parameter set for either the English-like value or the Italian-like value. Incoming data, or the absence thereof, force a resetting of the parameter if the original value was incorrect. This paper argues that the single-value solution cannot work, no matter which value is chosen as the initial one, because of inherent limitations in the child’s parser, and because of the presence of misleading input. An alternative dual-value solution is proposed, in which the child begins acquisition with both values available, and uses theory-confirmation procedures to decide which value is best supported by the available data.
Valian, V. (1991). Syntactic subjects in the early speech of American and Italian children. Cognition, 40, 21-81.
Syntactic subjects in the early speech of American and Italian children
Abstract: Why do young children leave out sentential subjects? Two competence-deficit hypotheses and a performance-limitation account are evaluated in the present set of studies. American children appear to understand that English requires subjects before mean length of utterance (MLU) 2.0. On balance, performance factors account for the data best. Natural conversations between 21 American children (ranging in age from 1;10 to 2;8 and in MLU from 1.53 to 4.38) and their mothers were taped, transcribed, and analyzed to determine when American children understand that English requires subjects. We measured the frequency of subjects (Study 1); types of pronominal subjects, including expletives (Study 2); frequency of modals and semi-auxiliaries (Study 3); frequency of infinitival to, past tense, third person singular, and subordinate clauses (Study 4); length of verb phrase, frequency of different types of verbs, and frequency of direct objects (Study 5). For Studies 1 and 3 we also used , for comparative purposes, transcripts of 5 Italian children, taped monthly for a year. Even our lowest-MLU American group (5 children between 1.5 and 1.99) used subjects and pronominal subjects more than twice as often as the Italian children, and correctly case-marked their subjects. The American children also produced examples of all the sentence elements measured.
Valian, V. (1994). Children’s postulation of null subjects: Parameter setting and language acquisition. In B. Lust, G. Hermon, & J. Kornfilt (Eds.), Syntactic theory and first language acquisition: Cross-linguistic perspectives. Vol. 2: Binding, dependencies, and learnability. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 273-286.
Children’s postulation of null subjects: Parameter setting and language acquisition
Abstract: This chapter covers three main points. The first is that, with respect to null subjects in young children’s speech, the data collected thus far indicate no point at which the grammar of U.S. children speaking Standard English (henceforth, American children) clearly licenses null subjects, and no point at which IP and CP are clearly absent. In contrast, the grammars of children acquiring null subject languages do show clear evidence for null subjects, and, equally, show evidence at least for IP. This is not to say that no American child ever has an incorrect grammar, but simply that the data thus far give us no grounds for claiming an incorrect grammar for most children. The data are briefly reviewed here.
The second point is that, in order to account for the diversity as well as the commonalities in acquisition within and across languages, theories must specifically include both a competence component and a performance component, and a model of how the two interact. Each component by itself is too weak in predictive power to handle the facts. A corollary of this is that there is no metatheoretic reason to prefer competence-deficit explanations over performance-deficit explanations.
The third point is that children’s initial state is, with respect to parameters, unset. As I have argued in previous work (Valian, 1990a, 1990b), the child does not begin acquisition with one or another value preset; there is no default setting. Rather, the child entertains both options on an equal footing until sufficient evidence accrues to favor one over the other, and he or she remains with that value unless and until sufficient evidence accrues to switch to another value.
Valian V. & Levitt, A. (1996). Prosody and Adults’ Learning of Syntactic Structure. Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 497-516.
Prosody and Adults’ Learning of Syntactic Structure
Abstract: The role of prosody in adults’ acquisition of a miniature artificial language was examined in three experiments. In Experiment 1, learners heard and repeated prerecorded sentences of the language, and simultaneously saw corresponding referents, but did not see any printed words.
Learners received four study-test trials. Half the learners heard a “single word” presentation, in which each of the four words of each sentence was recorded with the falling contour associated with list-final position. Half heard a “phrase prosody” presentation — expected to aid learning — in which each two-word phrase was recorded as a phrasal unit, with the first two-word phrase of each sentence having a rising contour and the second two-word phrase having a falling contour. Half the participants were given a dialect with high-frequency markers expected to aid learning, and the other half a dialect with low-frequency markers. The phrase prosody presentation did not facilitate learning. Experiment 2 removed the reference field and provided six study-test trials. Phrase prosody here facilitated performance, primarily by increasing learners’ acceptance of correct sequences. Experiment 3 removed participants’ repetition as well as the reference field and found a strong effect of phrase prosody. We propose that prosody helps recognition of correct word pairs and may be especially useful when other cues to syntactic structure are either unavailable or cannot be exploited by the learner.
Valian, V., Hoeffner, J., & Aubry, S. (1996). Young children’s imitation of sentence subjects: evidence of processing limitations. Developmental Psychology, 32, 153-164.
Young children’s imitation of sentence subjects: evidence of processing limitations
Abstract: Elicited imitation was used to determine whether young children’s inconsistent production of sentence subjects was due to limitations in their knowledge of English or in their ability to access and use that knowledge. Nineteen young children (age range = 1 year 10 months to 2 years 8 months; Mean Length of Utterance [MLU] range = 1.28 to 4.93) repeated sentences that varied in length, structure, and type of subject. A competence-deficit hypothesis would predict that children below MLU 3 would differentially omit expletive subjects and subjects preceded by a discourse topic more often than children above MLU 3. That hypothesis was disconfirmed. A performance-deficit hypothesis would predict that children below MLU 3 would omit more subjects from long sentences than short ones, and that the high-MLU children would not show a length effect. That hypothesis was confirmed. Processing limitations, rather than a defective grammar, explain very young children’s absent subjects.
Valian V. & Eisenberg, Z. (1996). The development of syntactic subjects in Portuguese-speaking children. Journal of Child Language, 23, 103-128.
The development of syntactic subjects in Portuguese-speaking children
Abstract: In order to separate competence and performance factors in acquisition of knowledge of syntactic subjects, we audiotaped and analyzed the spontaneous speech of 20 Portuguese-speaking two-year-olds in natural conversation with Portuguese-speaking adults. We separated the children into three groups based on Mean Length of Utterance in Words: 1.5-1.99; 2.0-2.99; 3.0-4.99. Our cross-sectional data demonstrated that Portuguese-speaking children increased their use of subjects from 28% in the lowest-MLUW group to 57% in the highest-MLUW group. The children in the highest-MLUW group almost perfectly matched the adult speakers in the study on every measure. The increase in the children’s use of subjects was primarily due to an increase in the use of pronominal subjects. A comparison between Portuguese- and English-speaking children suggests that adult competence about the status of subjects is present at the onset of combinatorial speech, as shown by differential production of subjects. Each group also experiences performance limitations, as shown by the increase in subject use as development proceeds.
Valian, V. (1999). Rethinking learning: comments on Rethinking innateness. Journal of Child Language, 26, 248-253.
Valian, V. (1999). Input and language acquisition. In W. C. Ritchie & T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of child language acquisition. New York: Academic Press, 497-530.
Input and language acquisition
Abstract: (from the book) Begins by distinguishing among 3 metaphors of acquisition: the copy, hypothesis-testing, and trigger metaphors. After outlining these 3 positions, the distinction among direct and indirect positive evidence and direct and indirect negative evidence and their roles in languages acquisition under the hypothesis-testing and trigger theories are reviewed. Then, experimental work on the role of input in acquisition is reviewed. The author distinguishes among 3 types of studies that have been performed to determine the role of the environment in acquisition. It is concluded on the basis of this work that neither input nor reply studies show any correlations between linguistic activity in the child’s environment and progress in acquisition.
Grant, J., Valian, V., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2002). Is syntax intact in Williams syndrome? A study of relative clauses. Journal of Child Language, 29, 403-416.
Is syntax intact in Williams syndrome? A study of relative clauses
Abstract: Despite growing empirical evidence to the contrary, claims continue to be made that the grammar of people with Williams syndrome (WS) is intact. We show that even in a simple elicited imitation task examining the syntax of relative clauses, older children and adults with WS (n=14, mean age = 17;0 years) only reach the level of typical five-year-old controls. When tested systematically in a number of different laboratories, all aspects of WS language show delay and/or deviance throughout development. We conclude that the grammatical abilities of people with WS should be described in terms of relative rather than absolute proficiency, and that the syndrome should no longer be used to bolster claims about the existence of independently functioning, innately specified modules in the human brain.
Valian, V. & Casey, L. (2003). Young children’s acquisition of wh-questions: The role of structured input. Journal of Child Language, 30, 117-143.
Young children’s acquisition of wh-questions: The role of structured input
Abstract: Two-year-olds learn language quickly but how they exploit adult input remains obscure. Twenty-nine children aged 2;6 to 3;2, divided into three treatment groups, participated in an intervention experiment consisting of four sessions one week apart. Pre- and post-intervention sessions were identical for all children: children heard a wh-question and attempted to repeat it; a ‘talking bear’ answered. That same format was used for the two intervention sessions for children in a quasicontrol condition (Group QC). Children receiving modeling (Group M) heard a question twice before repeating it; those receiving implicit correction (Group IC) heard a question, attempted to repeat it, and heard it again. All groups improved in supplying and inverting an auxiliary for target questions with trained auxiliaries. Only experimental children generalized to auxiliaries on which they had not been trained. Very little input, if concentrated but varied, and presented so that the child attends to it and attempts to parse it, is sufficient for the rapid extraction and generalization of syntactic regularities. Children can learn even more efficiently than has been thought.
Valian, V., & Aubry, S. (2005). When opportunity knocks twice: two-year-olds’ repetition of sentence subjects. Journal of Child Language, 32, 617-641.
When opportunity knocks twice: two-year-olds’ repetition of sentence subjects
Abstract: Why are young children’s utterances short ? This elicited imitation study used a new task – double imitation – to investigate the factors that contribute to children’s failure to lexicalize sentence subjects. Two-year-olds heard a triad of sentences singly and attempted to imitate each ; they then again heard the same triad singly and again attempted to imitate each. Comparisons between the two attempts showed that children’s second passes were more accurate than their first. In addition, independent of sentence length, children increased their inclusion of pronominal and expletive but not lexical subjects. Children included verbs more often from sentences with pronominal than lexical subjects, suggesting a trade-off. Children included subjects more often in short sentences than long ones, and increased subject inclusion only in short sentences. The results suggest that children’s language production is similar to adults’ : a complex interaction of syntactic knowledge, limited cognitive resources, communicative goals, and conversational structure.
Valian, V., Prasada, S., & Scarpa, J. (2006). Direct object predictability: effects on young children’s imitation of sentences. Journal of Child Language. 33, 247-269.
Direct object predictability: effects on young children’s imitation of sentences
Abstract: We hypothesize that the conceptual relation between a verb and its direct object can make a sentence easier (“the cat is eating some food”) or harder (“the cat is eating a sock”) to parse and understand. If children’s limited performance systems contribute to the ungrammatical brevity of their speech, they should perform better on sentences that require fewer processing resources: children should imitate the constituents of sentences with highly predictable direct objects at a higher rate than those from sentences with less predictable objects. In Experiment 1, 24 two-year-olds performed an elicited imitation task and confirmed that prediction for all three major constituents (subject, verb, direct object). In Experiment 2, 23 two-year-olds performed both an elicited imitation task and a sticker placement task (in which they placed a sticker on the pictured subject of the sentence after hearing and imitating the sentence). Children imitated verbs more often from predictable than unpredictable sentences, but not subjects or objects. Children’s inclusion of constituents is affected by the conceptual relations among those constituents as well as by task characteristics.
Valian, V., Solt, S., & Stewart, J. (2009). Abstract categories or limited scope formulae: The case of children’s determiners. Journal of Child Language.
Abstract categories or limited scope formulae: The case of children’s determiners
Abstract: Six tests of the spontaneous speech of twenty-one English-speaking children (1 ;10 to 2 ;8; MLUs 1.53 to 4.38) demonstrate the presence of the syntactic category determiner from the start of combinatorial speech, supporting nativist accounts. Children use multiple determiners before a noun to the same extent as their mothers (1) when only a and the or (2) all determiners are analyzed, or (3) when children and mothers are matched on determiner and noun types and determiner+noun tokens. (4) Overlap increases as opportunity for overlap increases: children use multiple determiners with more than 50% of nouns used at least twice with a determiner and with 80% of nouns used at least six times with a determiner. (5) Formulae play a limited role in low-MLU children’s determiner usage, INCREASING with MLU. (6) Less than 1% of determiner uses are errors. Prior results showing no overlap are likely a sampling artifact.
Virginia Valian, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Psychology Hunter College, CUNY
Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Linguistics, and Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, CUNY Graduate Center
Virginia Valian is a cognitive scientist whose research focuses on language acquisition in two-year-olds, bilingualism, and why so few women are in positions of power and prestige.