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Title:Coming to agreement: representation and processing of English subject-verb agreement in acquisition
Author(s):Lukyanenko, Cynthia
Director of Research:Fisher, Cynthia L.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Fisher, Cynthia
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Bock, J. Kathryn; Baillargeon, Renée; Federmeier, Kara; Brown-Schmidt, Sarah
Department / Program:Psychology
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):subject-verb agreement
syntax acquisition
language acquisition
Abstract:Syntactic dependencies provide a useful window on children’s grammatical development. In this project, we use subject-verb agreement as a tool for investigating how young children learn and process formal linguistic relationships, considering both classic questions about the role of semantic and syntactic- distributional knowledge in acquisition, and questions about the development of online sentence processing. One feature that makes subject-verb agreement ideal for such an investigation is the fact that the agreeing verb reflects the grammatical number of its subject. Thus, we say "she is", but "they are", marking the subject number both in the form of pronoun and on the verb. However, this link between number-meaning and linguistic form can easily be broken. We say "they are" even when we talk about a single pair of scissors, because scissors is a grammatically plural noun. Because agreement has clear notional correlates, but must ultimately be learned as a primarily syntactic dependency, we ask how this unfolds in development as a window on the role of semantic and syntactic knowledge in children’s acquisition of linguistic dependencies. Language processing is incremental: though precisely what information is accessible at different times changes with the task, both listeners and speakers put together each crumb of information as it becomes available to build a representation of the sentence at hand. Agreement involves a displacement or reflection of one word’s properties onto another word in the sentence. This means that agreement can be used to investigate the incremental use of displaced information on the verb during processing, to ease integration of, or even pre-activate, features of the upcoming subject. Experiments 1 and 2 ask what properties of the subject govern children’s choice of verb form in sentence production. Experiments 3 and 4 investigate how children and adults deploy their knowledge of agreement in online comprehension. Results from these studies suggest that by the age of 3 children treat agreement as a primarily syntactic dependency. Experiments 5 and 6 follow up on this finding by asking whether notional number plays any role in the online comprehension of agreement. For adults, agreement appears to act both as a cue to the likely grammatical and the likely notional number of the upcoming subject. Experiment 6 collects similar data from children, and results suggest that they too use agreement as a cue to the likely notional number of the upcoming subject. In the final chapter, Experiment 7 investigates 2.5-year-olds’ use of agreement during online comprehension, and discusses possible learning mechanisms that might result in the observed patterns. The findings presented here suggest that 2- and 3-year-old English-learners treat agreement as a primarily syntactic relationship, and are able to deploy their knowledge of agreement rapidly during online comprehension and in production. Remaining questions center on the balance of notional and grammatical number that agreement carries and the mechanism by which it does so, the degree to which children’s knowledge, demonstrated here with the agreeing forms is and are, generalizes to the rest of the English agreement paradigm, and testing predictions of the proposed learning mechanisms.
Issue Date:2015-01-21
Rights Information:Copyright 2014 Cynthia A C Lukyanenko
Date Available in IDEALS:2015-01-21
Date Deposited:2014-12

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