Princeton University Library Catalog

Abstraction Versus Restriction in Syntactic Learning: An Examination of Children’s Acquisition of the a-adjective Restriction

Hao, Jessica [Browse]
Senior thesis
Goldberg, Adele [Browse]
Lew-Williams, Casey [Browse]
Princeton University. Department of Psychology [Browse]
Class year:
162 pages
Summary note:
A key balance must be achieved by learners of any language: In order to create novel utterances, learners must generate an abstract syntactic system representing the grammar of the language, however in order to ensure that all novel utterances are grammatical, this system must also be appropriately limited to agree with the language’s specific syntactic rules and restrictions. Speakers face two main challenges: They must first construct an appropriately abstract grammar on the basis of concrete instances from the input and then constrain this abstract grammar such that it does not include ungrammatical forms. These are challenging tasks because language input does not come pre-marked with abstract syntactic categories and also provides no direct negative evidence regarding what cannot be said. The present study investigates how learners are able to address these challenges by examining the development of a specific seemingly arbitrary linguistic restriction: the a-adjective restriction. Children between the ages of six and sixteen participated in an elicited production experiment using real and nonce a-adjectives and non-a-adjectives in which response structure choice (attributive or relative clause forms) was the main variable of interest. The results showed a variety of age-related patterns which suggest that (i) children become competent with the attributive structure earlier than the relative clause structure, (ii) children acquire the a-adjective restriction fairly late in development through a process of learning the syntactic structure preferences of different word classes in an initially item-based manner, and (iii) young children’s syntactic representations are not initially abstract but rather develop to become increasingly abstract with age. Implications for theories and potential mechanisms of language acquisition are discussed.