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LINGUIST List 23.3787

Mon Sep 10 2012

Diss: Language Acquisition/ English/ Sotho, Southern: Crawford: 'Developmental Perspectives...'

Editor for this issue: Lili Xia <lxialinguistlist.org>

Date: 08-Sep-2012
From: Jean Crawford <jeaninmalihotmail.com>
Subject: Developmental Perspectives on the Acquisition of the Passive
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Institution: University of Connecticut
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2012

Author: Jean Crawford

Dissertation Title: Developmental Perspectives on the Acquisition of the Passive

Dissertation URL: http://jeanerz.com/Crawford2012Dissertation.pdf

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition

Subject Language(s): English (eng)
                            Sotho, Southern (sot)

Dissertation Director:
William Snyder
Maria Polinsky
Diane Lillo-Martin

Dissertation Abstract:

This dissertation investigates the acquisition of the passive. The
apparent cross-linguistic delay of the verbal passive compared to other
constructions suggests children's knowledge is somehow restricted,
leading some to propose the difficulty arises because of syntactic
maturation (Wexler 2004, Orfitelli 2012) or because of a heavy reliance
on discourse features assigned to arguments (Snyder and Hyams
2008). These hypotheses predict that until relevant mechanisms
mature, children will only produce and comprehend a subset of
passives (i.e., adjectival), or will only show adult-like performance when
felicity conditions are met. Others have suggested children have not
overcome the poverty of the stimulus for passives, arguing that
frequency of passive in the input determines the timing of acquisition
(Kline and Demuth 2010). The prediction of this account is that passive
production and comprehension will vary cross-linguistically as a
function of the primary linguistic data.

I argue against both the maturation and frequency accounts with data
from English and Sesotho. In the Sesotho study, I show that 4-6 year
old Sesotho-speaking children perform adult-like on certain types of
unambiguously verbal passives. Furthermore, I show that Sesotho-
speaking children perform no better on any type of passive than their
English-speaking counterparts, although the frequency of passives in
Sesotho child directed speech is ten times greater than in English.

The English study, a targeted grammaticality judgment task where
felicity conditions are met, shows that 4-6 year-old English-speaking
children accept passives with purpose phrases as grammatical,
indicating they have verbal passive syntax. This result further provides
evidence against frequency as the main source of passive acquisition
delay, since passives are less than 1% of all English child directed
speech. The results add to growing evidence that English-speaking
children have knowledge of verbal passives when felicity conditions are
met, though felicity might not be the sole factor.

The overall results indicate children have adult-like knowledge of
verbal passives in most cases, though the source of non-adult-like
performance requires further explanation. Following Gehrke and Grillo
(2008) and Grillo (2008), I suggest that the type shifting required for
some predicates to passivize may play a role in the passive delay.

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