Children's Acquisition of Syntactic Knowledge

Rosalind Thornton

in Linguistics

ISBN: 9780199772810
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
Children's Acquisition of Syntactic Knowledge

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  • Linguistics
  • Anthropological Linguistics
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Children the world over pass through stages as they gradually converge on the adult language of their community. Language acquisition researchers are interested not only in documenting these steps, but also in understanding the mechanisms that account for children’s developmental path. The acquisition of syntactic knowledge is a relative newcomer to linguistic inquiry, becoming of serious interest to linguists in the 1960s, after Chomsky challenged Skinner’s idea that language is just a form of behavior, in this case “verbal behavior,” that is learned through positive and negative reinforcement. Chomsky argued that human beings must be specially designed to acquire language, given the complexity of the linguistic knowledge we all achieve in the face of the “poverty of the stimulus,” that is, the lack of rich and detailed information in the input data. He suggested that humans are born with innate linguistic knowledge known as “Universal Grammar” that guides acquisition of language. The debate over whether language is learned from the input purely by experience (“nurture”) or whether there is an innate component (“nature”) that interacts with the input children receive has dominated the field since the 1960s, and controversy continues today. In this article, the Chomskyan view that children are born with an innate Universal Grammar will be termed the “generative” viewpoint. Approaches that take the perspective that language is learned entirely from the input will be termed the “usage-based” approaches. Differences in theoretical approach inevitably mean a different research focus. Functional or usage-based linguists deny that humans are born with any innate abstract knowledge of language, and so they look to parental or caretaker input for answers about how children gain mastery of syntactic structures over time. Researchers seek to demonstrate a high correlation between a construction used by adults in the child’s environment and use of that construction, or parts of that construction, in the child’s output. Researchers studying children’s acquisition of syntax within the generative framework focus on whether or not children can be shown to demonstrate aspects of the grammar that are claimed to be innate. Researchers might study whether children have set various parameters for their language or investigate whether or not purportedly universal principles (or “constraints”) are intact in children’s grammars as early as they can be tested. This article outlines many of the topics that have been studied to date, with examples of relevant literature from both perspectives. Many of the topics are organized by construction type, but this is just for convenience of presentation. Types of constructions such as “relative clauses” or “passives” are not primitives in the generative theory but result from combinations of other operations, so syntactic development is not seen to develop construction by construction. It should be kept in mind that this article’s organization conceals the fact that in the generative framework apparently unrelated constructions can be tied together by a principle of grammar (e.g., Principle C) or by a particular type of movement (e.g., A-movement) or a particular type of relationship (e.g., c-command).

Article.  12825 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Anthropological Linguistics ; Language Families ; Psycholinguistics ; Sociolinguistics

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