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Valian, V., Solt, S., & Stewart, J. (2009). Abstract categories or limited scope formulae: The case of children’s determiners. Journal of Child Language.
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.
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: 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., Prasada, S., & Scarpa, J. (2006). Direct object predictability: effects on young children’s imitation of sentences. Journal of Child Language. 33, 247-269.
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., & Aubry, S. (2005). When opportunity knocks twice: two-year-olds’ repetition of sentence subjects. Journal of Child Language, 32, 617-641.
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. & Casey, L. (2003). Young children’s acquisition of wh-questions: The role of structured input. Journal of Child Language, 30, 117-143.
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.
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.
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. (1999). Input and language acquisition. In W. C. Ritchie & T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of child language acquisition. New York: Academic Press, 497-530.
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.
Valian V. & Eisenberg, Z. (1996). The development of syntactic subjects in Portuguese-speaking children. Journal of Child Language, 23, 103-128.
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., Hoeffner, J., & Aubry, S. (1996). Young children’s imitation of sentence subjects: evidence of processing limitations. Developmental Psychology, 32, 153-164.
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. & Levitt, A. (1996). Prosody and Adults’ Learning of Syntactic Structure. Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 497-516.
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.