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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.]

Arguing about innateness

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.

Splitting the sexes

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.

Bilingualism and cognition

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.

Video of the Afternoon Panel

Video of the Evening Panel