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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.

Rethinking learning: comments on Rethinking innateness.

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.