Competition all the way down: How children learn word order cues to sentence meaning

Rowland, C. F., Noble, C. H., & Chan, A. (2014). Competition all the way down: How children learn word order cues to sentence meaning. In B. MacWhinney, A. Malchukov, & E. Moravcsik (Eds.), Competing Motivations in Grammar and Usage (pp. 125-143). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Most work on competing cues in language acquisition has focussed on what happens when cues compete within a certain construction. There has been far less work on what happens when constructions themselves compete. The aim of the present chapter was to explore how the acquisition mechanism copes when constructions compete in a language. We present three experimental studies, all of which focus on the acquisition of the syntactic function of word order as a marker of the Theme-Recipient relation in ditransitives (form-meaning mapping). In Study 1 we investigated how quickly English children acquire form-meaning mappings when there are two competing structures in the language. We demonstrated that English speaking 4-year- olds, but not 3-year-olds, correctly interpreted both preposition al and double object datives, assigning Theme and Recipient participant roles on the basis of word order cues. There was no advantage for the double object dative despite its greater frequency in child directed speech. In Study 2 we looked at acquisition in a language which has no dative alternation –Welsh–to investigate how quickly children acquire form-meaning mapping when there is no competing structure. We demonstrated that Welsh children (Study 2) acquired the prepositional dative at age 3 years, which was much earlier than English children. Finally, in Study 3 we examined bei2 (give) ditransitives in Cantonese, to investigate what happens when there is no dative alternation (as in Welsh), but when the child hears alternative, and possibly competing, word orders in the input. Like the English 3-year-olds, the Cantonese 3-year-olds had not yet acquired the word order marking constraints of bei2 ditransitives. We conclude that there is not only competition between cues but competition between constructions in language acquisition. We suggest an extension to the competition model (Bates & MacWhinney, 1982) whereby generalisations take place across constructions as easily as they take place within constructions, whenever there are salient similarities to form the basis of the generalisation.
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