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LINGUIST List 18.3475

Wed Nov 21 2007

Diss: Lang Acq/Syntax: Estigarribia: 'Asking Questions: language va...'

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        1.    Bruno Estigarribia, Asking Questions: language variation and language acquisition

Message 1: Asking Questions: language variation and language acquisition
Date: 20-Nov-2007
From: Bruno Estigarribia <estigarribiamail.fpg.unc.edu>
Subject: Asking Questions: language variation and language acquisition
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Institution: Stanford University
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2007

Author: Bruno Estigarribia

Dissertation Title: Asking Questions: language variation and language acquisition

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition

Subject Language(s): English (eng)

Dissertation Director:
Eve V. Clark
Ivan A. Sag
Thomas Wasow
Arnold M. Zwicky

Dissertation Abstract:

This dissertation investigates the acquisition of English yes/no
questions. Previous studies have restricted themselves to the
acquisition of 'inversion" or movement transformations. As a result, a
great deal of child and adult data which do not show inversion (non-
canonical questions) have never been analyzed.

My account remedies this by providing the first model of acquisition that
integrates language variation as an important motor in development.
My main hypothesis is that children hear a variety of question forms of
different complexity from adults (Coming? You coming? You're
coming? Are you coming?), and that this variation facilitates learning. I
show first that the different variants can be ordered in a relation of
increasing structural complexity. I use American English data from
CHILDES to show that parents use all forms in their speech to
children, and that in fact, the canonical "inverted" form is rarer than
people have assumed (between 33% and 57% of all yes/no
questions). Reduced and declarative forms are quite frequent and

I then analyze child time series data to show that simpler forms emerge
early and facilitate the acquisition of more complex forms. This
incremental structure-building process depends on the availability of
an adjunction strategy that takes reduced child questions and
augments them with initial auxiliaries and subjects. This account draws
on Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development: each developmental
stage lays the foundation for the kinds of knowledge currently
accessible to the learner. Moreover, I show that the availability of this
incremental process is contingent on the high frequency of non-
canonical questions in parental speech: the single child in my corpus
who receives mostly canonical input employs a completely different,
top down strategy.

The approach here differs from both movement-based approaches
and item-based ones. It shifts the focus away from problems of
learnability that seldom assess how child knowledge at a given point
determines what is learnable and how. It also adopts a view of the
target as a constraint-based, surfacist grammar, with no movement
transformations. In addition, I claim that the structure-building process
is not necessarily based on specific lexical items or combinations

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