Determinants of acquisition order in wh-questions: Re-evaluating the role of caregiver speech

Rowland, C. F., Pine, J. M., Lieven, E. V., & Theakston, A. L. (2003). Determinants of acquisition order in wh-questions: Re-evaluating the role of caregiver speech. Journal of Child Language, 30(3), 609-635. doi:10.1017/S0305000903005695.
Accounts that specify semantic and/or syntactic complexity as the primary determinant of the order in which children acquire particular words or grammatical constructions have been highly influential in the literature on question acquisition. One explanation of wh-question acquisition in particular suggests that the order in which English speaking children acquire wh-questions is determined by two interlocking linguistic factors; the syntactic function of the wh-word that heads the question and the semantic generality (or ‘lightness’) of the main verb (Bloom, Merkin & Wootten, 1982; Bloom, 1991). Another more recent view, however, is that acquisition is influenced by the relative frequency with which children hear particular wh-words and verbs in their input (e.g. Rowland & Pine, 2000). In the present study over 300 hours of naturalistic data from twelve two- to three-year-old children and their mothers were analysed in order to assess the relative contribution of complexity and input frequency to wh-question acquisition. The analyses revealed, first, that the acquisition order of wh-questions could be predicted successfully from the frequency with which particular wh-words and verbs occurred in the children's input and, second, that syntactic and semantic complexity did not reliably predict acquisition once input frequency was taken into account. These results suggest that the relationship between acquisition and complexity may be a by-product of the high correlation between complexity and the frequency with which mothers use particular wh-words and verbs. We interpret the results in terms of a constructivist view of language acquisition.
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