Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Child language acquisition and constructions

A memorable line from a talk by Ewa Dabrowska that I went to recently:

"It is generally agreed that the representations assumed by generative theories cannot be learned from the input. For generative linguists, this fact is a fundamental premise of arguments for the innateness of at least some aspects of these representations: since they cannot have been learned from the input, they must be available a priori. An alternative conclusion, of course, is that we need a better theory - one that does not assume representations that are unlearnable."

Her answer is construction grammar: kids first learn individual low-level constructions like "What's ___ doing?" as unanalysed units, and only later come up with higher-level schemas of which these constructions are special cases (the next stage in this case would be "What's ___ ___ing?") Judging from the evidence she presented, showing that the vast majority of a 3 year old's utterances could be accounted for solely on the basis of simple substitutions within sentences they are known to have already heard, "children's [linguistic] creativity seems to involve superimposing and juxtaposing memorised chunks." This view of language more or less inverts the usual grammarian's perspective: the most general rules are developed only after specific cases have been learned, and the specific cases presumably continue to be stored independently. It strikes me as a rather promising way of thinking about historical syntax.


bulbul said...

*scratches head*
*clears throat*
I freely admit I know very little about language acquisition, but what you describe here seems to me the standard (non-generative) understanding of the process. Am I missing something?

the vast majority of a 3 year old's utterances
And there's the rub - what about the rest? And how much exactly is a vast majority?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I too know very little about child language acquisition, and almost all of what I have read is from a generativist perspective - but I'd never heard this understanding of it expressed before (at least not this clearly.) Maybe non-generativist views are given greater rein in Slovakia than in London :)

Vast majority was about 90% - and a lot of the rest were either slightly less trivial modifications (requiring 2 fill-in-the-gaps rather than 1, for example) or simply ungrammatical. I'll try and track down the paper she was discussing so we can be more precise.

benkato said...

I was just going through some of your web-work on Algerian Arabic, it's pretty excellent. The proverbs section is most interesting to me; we actually say the exact same thing in Libyan (اتغدى وتمدى اتعشى و تمشى). You might find this post of mine interesting: http://dormirdebout.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/libyan-proverbs/

Are you still at SOAS, by the way?

bulbul said...

Maybe non-generativist views are given greater rein in Slovakia
Possibly :) Or more likely Germany and Soviet Russia. In Soviet Russia, grammar generates you!

Languagehat said...

what you describe here seems to me the standard (non-generative) understanding of the process.

So it is, but unfortunately generativist nonsense has been linguistic orthodoxy for half a century or so, although I gather things are improving and the Inquisition has pretty much stopped ripping out fingernails and putting dissenters on the rack.

بنجامين گير said...

Greetings from a fellow SOAS student. Construction Grammar is largely associated with Adele Goldberg, who teaches at Princeton.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Benkato: Yes, I'm still at SOAS. Interesting set of proverbs - the ideas are certainly familiar, though the wording mostly isn't.

Benjamin Geer: interesting link. The construction grammarian I'm most familiar with is Bill Croft, for his historical focus.