Linguistics and English Language

Linguistic Circle

Speaker: Ben Ambridge (University of Liverpool)

Title: Real crosslinguistic research: Focussing on the similarities, not the differences

Abstract: Most accounts of child language acquisition fail because they are designed to explain findings from only a single language (most often, of course, English). Studies that do include more than one language often focus on differences rather than similarities (English children do this because English is like this; Turkish children do that because Turkish is like that), and thus fail to advance our understanding of the mechanisms and processes that allow children to learn any language. In this talk I will outline three research projects that involve what I am provocatively calling real crosslinguistic research – running more-or-less the same study across different languages, focussing on the similarities, not the differences.

First, I will summarize several studies of inflectional noun and verb morphology, primarily across Polish, Finnish and Estonian, but with some brief excursions into Lithuanian and Japanese. Across all of these languages, children’s errors pattern according to word-form frequency and (where studied) phonological neighbourhood density.

Second, I will summarize almost-identical adult grammaticality judgment studies of passives across English, Indonesian and Mandarin (with Balinese and Hebrew in the works). Across all three, the relative acceptability of passives (but not other constructions with similar word order) is predicted by verb semantics, specifically the extent to which the passive subject is affected/changed by the action.

Third, I will summarize almost-identical adult and child grammaticality judgment studies of causatives across English, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese and K’iche’ Mayan. The relative acceptability of more- vs less-transparent causative forms (e.g., He broke the stick vs He made the stick break) is again predicted by verb semantics; here, the extent to which the caused and causing event merge into one.

I will end by arguing that these finding are best explained by an exemplar model of language acquisition, and by presenting some findings from simple discriminative learning computational models that instantiate many of the assumptions of such an approach.

Contact details

Graeme Trousdale

Tobias Ungerer

Jan 30 2020 -

Linguistic Circle

2020-01-30: Real crosslinguistic research: Focussing on the similarities, not the differences

Lecture Theatre 2, Appleton Tower, 11 Crichton Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9LE