Learning complex questions from the input
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Description: A central question in language acquisition is how children master sentence types that they have seldom, if ever, heard. Here we report the findings of a preregistered, randomized, single-blind intervention study designed to test the prediction that, for one such sentence type, complex questions (e.g., Is the crocodile who’s hot eating?), children could combine schemas learned, on the basis of the input, for complex noun phrases (the [THING] who’s [PROPERTY]) and simple questions (Is [THING] [ACTION]ing?) to yield a complex-question schema (Is [the [THING] who’s [PROPERTY]] ACTIONing?). To investigate this possibility, 122 children aged 4;2 to 6;8 years (M=5;6, SD= 7.7 months) were trained on simple questions (e.g., Is the bird cleaning?) and either (Experimental group, N=61) complex noun phrases (e.g., the bird who’s sad) or (Control group, N=61) matched simple noun phrases (e.g., the sad bird). On most measures, the two groups did not differ on their ability to produce novel complex questions at test. However, the Experimental group did show some evidence of generalizing a particular complex NP schema (the [THING] who’s [PROPERTY] as opposed to the [THING] that’s [PROPERTY]) from training to test; a finding that is potentially compatible with constructivist, generativist and task-based explanations.