LINGUIST List 23.2803

Thu Jun 21 2012

Review: Language Acquisition, Psycholinguistics: Grimm, Müller, Hamann, Ruigendijk (eds., 2011)

Editor for this issue: Anja Wanner <>

Date: 21-Jun-2012
From: Ursula Kania <>
Subject: Production-Comprehension Asymmetries in Child Language
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at

EDITORS: Angela Grimm, Anja Müller, Cornelia Hamann, Esther RuigendijkTITLE: Production-Comprehension Asymmetries in Child LanguageSERIES TITLE: Studies on Language Acquisition [SOLA] 43PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2011

Ursula Kania, English Department, University of Leipzig (Germany)


In language acquisition, comprehension usually precedes production -- forexample, children comprehend more words than they are able to produce (e.g.Fenson et al. 1993 for English). The reverse pattern, i.e. the observation thatin some cases adult-like production seems to precede comprehension is a muchmore recent and still underresearched phenomenon.

This edited volume contains ten selected papers from the DGfS (=DeutscheGesellschaft für Sprachwissenschaft/'German Linguistic Society') workshop''Production-Comprehension-Asymmetries in Child Language,'' which was held at theUniversity of Osnabrück in March 2009, presenting research on cases where"production outperforms comprehension in the same linguistic domain" (p. 1). Aparticular focus lies on the acquisition and use of pronouns, since theasymmetry is particularly well-attested in this area (e.g. Bloom et al. 1994;Chien & Wexler 1990).

The book is organized into two sections (A and B), which correspond to the twomajor aims of the volume:

The first aim is to present cross-linguistic research onproduction-comprehension asymmetries, including contributions on lesser-studiedlanguages such as Bulgarian and Tamil (Section A). The second aim is to discusspossible sources of production-comprehension asymmetries. Based on theassumption that both comprehension and production rely on a single grammar, theseven papers in Section B mainly explore 1. in how far the observed differencescan be attributed to methodological decisions (i.e. performance or task effects)and 2. "what a grammatical explanation of the observed asymmetries could looklike" (p. 2).

In her contribution ''Testing the Aspect Hypothesis in child Tamil,'' the firstchapter in Section A, Lavanya Sankaran presents experimental findings on theinfluence of verb semantics on the production and comprehension of the aspectualmarkers 'kondiru' (consisting of the participle of 'kol,' 'to hold,' and theperfect auxiliary 'iru'; Lehmann 1993, p. 207) and 'vidu'(derived from thelexical verb for 'leave, let'; Schiffman 1999, p. 85) in Tamil, a lesser-studiedDravidian language. The results from an elicited production task carried outwith two child groups (mean age = 3;0 and 4;1) and one adult control groupsuggest that the perfective marker 'vidu' is acquired before the imperfectivemarker 'kondiru' and used in an adult-like way in production from early on.However, a sentence-picture matching task used to measure comprehension showedthe reverse pattern, i.e. a significantly better performance for 'kondiru' thanfor 'vidu'. The author suggests that this two-way asymmetry is caused by thefact that 'vidu' has a dual function (as a perfective and an inceptive marker),which might lead to a disadvantage in comprehension.

The second paper, ''An asymmetry in the acquisition of accusative clitics inchild Romanian,'' by Martine Coene and Laris Avram, discusses the use ofaccusative clitics and reflexives in the spontaneous production data of twochildren (1;9 and 3;0). Based on Uriagereka (1995) they argue that 1st/2ndperson clitics and reflexives belong to a different class than 3rd personclitics, leading to different developmental paths in acquisition. The productiondata show that the former types of clitics were used in an adult-like wayearlier than the latter. Even though the study focused on production only, thefindings call into question the well-established observation that comprehensionprecedes production for Romance pronominals. It is argued that the observedasymmetry stems from the fact that previous research considered 3rd personclitics only. The paper thus suggests that the observed production-comprehensionasymmetry may disappear when the whole paradigm of accusative clitics isconsidered.

The third and last paper with a focus on cross-linguistic evidence is''Comprehension and imitated production of personal pronouns across languages'' byDagmar Bittner, Milena Kuehnast, and Natalia Gagarina. In order to examine theeffects of the cues structural prominence and animacy on the interpretation anduse of personal pronouns in subject position and to compare the cue pattern incomprehension and production, German, Russian, and Bulgarian children in two agegroups (3 and 5 years) were tested with a question-after-story design. Eventhough the production task did not provide enough data for statistical analyses,the results indicate that the children relied on the same cues in bothproduction and comprehension, suggesting symmetric processing. However, theauthors point out that the results do not "mirror the complete anaphoriccapacity of [personal pronouns] in the children's grammar" (p. 91) since onlytwo cue types and one pronoun type were investigated.

Section B starts out with a study on the ''Comprehension and production ofsubject pronouns in child Dutch'' by Charlotte Koster, Jan Hoeks, and PetraHendriks. The explanatory framework used is Optimality Theory (e.g. Prince &Smolensky 2004), a constraint-based system in which language production andcomprehension are viewed as processes aiming at an optimal input-outputrelationship. The fact that production and comprehension proceed in oppositedirections (production going from meaning to form, comprehension from form tomeaning) leads to a potential asymmetry between the two modalities (AsymmetricGrammar Hypothesis). Adult speakers overcome this asymmetry by taking intoaccount both the listener's and the speaker's perspective (bidirectionaloptimization, Blutner 2000). Based on the assumption that children are not yetable to do so, the authors hypothesized that this would have consequences forchildren's production and comprehension of anaphoric subject pronouns and NPs indiscourse. In the study, 31 Dutch children (mean age = 5;6) and an adult controlgroup were given a picture storybook production task and a question-after-storytask to test comprehension. The children preferred to produce subject pronounsrather than NPs even after a topic shift (thus being overly economical).Furthermore, they failed to interpret the referents of subject pronounscorrectly in the comprehension task, presumably because they did not interpret apreceding NP as a topic shift signal (i.e. failing to take into account thespeaker's perspective). The authors argue that these asymmetries will vanishonce the children have optimized bidirectionality.

The fifth paper is ''Asymmetries in the processing of object relatives in childHebrew and Italian'' by Irena Botwinik. Based on the well-attested observationthat the production of object relatives precedes their comprehension, this studylays out a possible explanation for this asymmetry by reanalyzing experimentaldata on the comprehension of object relatives in Hebrew (Günzberg et al. 2008)and Italian (Arosio et al. 2006). It is suggested that the correct parsing andhence interpretation of object relatives is similar to that of other garden pathsentences involving local ambiguities, leading to processing difficulties whichare encountered in comprehension but not in production.

The sixth contribution, ''A comprehension delay of subject-object [S-O] wordorder in Dutch preschoolers,'' by Gisi Cannizzaro, presents experimental findingson the comprehension and production of S-O word order in children (mean age =3;6) and adults. The two groups were tested on the same sentences in both apicture-selection and a picture-description task, for the latter of whicheye-tracking data was obtained as an additional online-measure. The children,but not the adults, performed significantly worse on the comprehension than onthe production task. The author bases her explanation in the framework ofOptimality Theory and suggests that the observed delay in comprehension mayarise from a different ranking of constraints in the two modalities which thechildren still have to overcome. However, since the prediction that animacy(which is related to the PROMINENCE-constraint, Hendriks et al. 2005) wouldinfluence comprehension strategies was not borne out by the data, the authorconcludes with suggestions for further research in order to investigate thepossible sources of the asymmetry in more detail.

In the seventh paper, ''Asymmetries in children's language performance within andacross modalities,'' Oda-Christina Brandt-Kobele and Barbara Höhle firstsummarize findings from previous studies on production-comprehension asymmetriesas well as selected proposals on how to account for the observed patterns. Theythen consider methodological explanations in more detail, reexamining their ownexperimental data on the comprehension of verb-inflections in German 3-4year-olds (Brandt-Kobele & Höhle 2010). Participants were tested in 1. apreferential looking task and 2. a picture-selection task. Since the 3rd-personsingular female pronoun and the 3rd-person plural pronoun are homophones inGerman, only these two pronouns were used in the test sentences in order toforce children to obtain information on the number of participants from the verbinflection. While eye-tracking data from the first experiment provides evidencefor the children's ability to do so, this is not the case for the secondexperiment -- the authors suggest that pointing increases the processing load,leading to poorer performance. It is argued that different methods may not onlybe responsible for the observed within-modality asymmetry (i.e. withincomprehension) but also for attested cross-modal asymmetries (i.e. betweencomprehension and production).

The eighth paper is ''Adults' on-line comprehension of object pronouns indiscourse,'' by Petra Hendriks, Arina Banga, Jacolien von Rij, Gisi Cannizzaro,and John Hoeks. Studies on English have shown that six-year-olds correctlyproduce but still often misinterpret object pronouns (but not reflexives), apattern supposedly resulting from children's inability to observe Principle B ofBinding Theory (the so-called Delay of Principle B-Effect). It has been proposedthat this could be due experimental artifacts (Conroy et al., 2009) or the factthat the correct interpretation relies on contextual factors (Spenader, Smits, &Hendriks 2009). Results from a picture-verification task the authors conductedwith 25 Dutch adults showed that the accuracy of off-line-responses was notinfluenced by discourse context. However, reaction times were longer when thediscourse topic was not established unambiguously in the very beginning. It isargued that this influence of discourse context on adults' online behavior andchildren's off-line interpretations speaks against the Delay of PrincipleB-Effect resulting (only) from experimental artifacts.

In the ninth contribution, ''Production and comprehension of sentence negation inchild German,'' Magdalena Wojtecka, Corinna Koch, Angela Grimm, and Petra Schulzinvestigate whether there is a developmental asymmetry between the twomodalities. 34 German pre-schoolers were tested on the sentence-negator 'nicht'('not') in an elicited production task and a truth value judgment task, with aninterval of 6 months between two test rounds. While children showed mastery of'nicht' in production already in the first test round (mean age = 3;7),comprehension was still non-adult-like in the second test round (mean age =4;2). It is suggested that further research should use a variety of methods totest the same children in both modalities in order to shed further light on theobserved asymmetry.

The tenth and last paper is ''Principle B delays as a processing problem:Evidence from task effects,'' by Sergio Baauw, Shalom Zuckerman, EstherRuigendijk, and Sergey Avrutin. Similar to Hendriks, Banga, von Rij, Cannizzaro,and Hoeks (this volume) they argue that findings on children's mistakes in theinterpretation of object pronouns are not due to experimental artifacts but stemfrom processing problems. They compare findings from experiments oncomprehension involving both picture-selection and truth-value judgment tasksconducted with Dutch and Spanish children and Spanish agrammatic Broca'saphasics. The fact that latter type of task requires more processing resources(since the acceptability of a particular reading has to be considered) shouldresult in poorer performance. In line with this prediction, performance wasfound to be significantly worse in the truth-value judgment task throughout,suggesting that the Pronoun Interpretation Problem stems from processingdifficulties.


Considering that all papers focus on or at least include findings from languagesother than English, the first aim of the volume -- i.e. to presentcross-linguistic research on production-comprehension asymmetries -- hascertainly been met. Especially the papers on lesser-studied languages such asTamil (Sankaran) or Hebrew (Botwinik) are a welcome and much-needed addition toprevious research since they widen and evaluate the potential scope of theexisting explanatory frameworks.

The second and certainly very ambitious aim was "to shed light on the source ofthe production-comprehension asymmetries" (p. 4). The studies which reallysucceed in this respect are the ones fulfilling one of the following twocriteria: first, in order to rule out the possibility that the observedasymmetry is due to differences between (groups of) participants, it isnecessary to test the same children in both modalities. Furthermore,within-modality asymmetries have to be explored by comparing the resultsobtained via different experimental methods and measures (e.g. offline In total, eight of the ten papers in this volume satisfy either thefirst (e.g. Sankaran; Bittner, Kuehnast & Gagarina) or the second criterion(e.g. Brandt-Kobele & Höhle), thus providing valuable converging evidence on theobserved asymmetries both across and within modalities.

Since the volume takes a generative grammar perspective, it will at first glancemainly be of interest to nativist language acquisition researchers andgenerative linguists concerned with the phenomena discussed (most notablypronouns, but also negation and aspect marking).

However, the neglect of certain aspects (inevitably) resulting from thistheoretical decision could also serve as a starting point for a debate onproduction-comprehension asymmetries between generativists and researchersworking within the competing usage-based paradigm (e.g. Tomasello 2003). Forexample, the potential role of item-based effects is not considered in thisvolume. One implication resulting from a usage-based perspective is that oneshould be careful about crediting children with adult-like productivity, since(spontaneous) productivity has been found to be more item-based and thus morelimited than is often assumed in generative approaches (e.g. Dabrowska & Lieven2005 for questions in English). It is thus to be hoped that this volumestimulates future research (within both generative and usage-based frameworks)in order to shed further light on the observed patterns.

Furthermore, on a more general level, the inclusion of studies using both off-and online-measures (e.g. Cannizzaro) and the resulting discussion about whichparts of language processing the different methods and measures actually tapinto make this volume a stimulating read for everyone interested in the designand evaluation of psycholinguistic experiments.


Arosio, Fabrizio, Flavia Adani & Maria Teresia Guasti. 2006. Children'sprocessing of subject and object relatives in Italian. In Adriana Belletti,Elisa Bennati, Christiano Chesi & Ida Ferrari (eds.), Language Acquisition andDevelopment, 15-27. Cambridge Scholars Press.

Bloom, Paul, Andrew Baars, Laura Conway & Janet Nicol. 1994. Children'sknowledge of binding and coreference. Evidence from spontaneous speech. Language70. 53-71.

Blutner, Reinhard. 2000. Some aspects of optimality in natural languageinterpretation. Journal of Semantics 17. 189-216.

Brandt-Kobele, Oda-Christina & Barbara Höhle. 2010. What asymmetries withincomprehension reveal about asymmetries between comprehension and production: Thecase of verbal inflection in language acquisition. Lingua 120. 1910-1925.

Chien, Yu-Chin & Kenneth Wexler. 1990. Children's knowledge of localityconditions on binding as evidence for the modularity of syntax and pragmatics.Language Acquisition 1. 225-295.

Conroy, Anastasia, Eri Takahashi, Jeffrey Lidz & Colin Phillips. 2009. Equaltreatment for all antecedents. How children succeed with Principle B. LinguisticInquiry 40. 446-486.

Dabrowska, Ewa, & Elena Lieven. 2005. Towards a lexically specific grammar ofchildren's question constructions. Cognitive Linguistics 16(3). 437--474.

Fenson, Larry, Philip S. Dale, J. Steven Reznick, Donna Thal, Elizabeth Bates,Jeffrey P. Hartung, Steve Pethick & Judy S. Reilly. 1993. The MacArthurCommunicative Development Inventories: User's guide and technical manual. SanDiego: Paul H Brookes.

Günzberg-Kerbel, Noa, Lilach Shvimer & Naama Friedman. 2008. "Take the hen thatthe cow kissed the hen": Comprehension and production of various relativeclauses by Hebrew speaking children. Language and Brain 7. 23-43 (in Hebrew).

Hendriks, Petra, Helen de Hoop & Monique Lamers. 2005. Asymmetries in languageuse reveal asymmetries in the grammar. In Paul Dekke & Michael Franke (eds.),Proceedings of the 15th Amsterdam Colloquium, 113-118. Amsterdam: Institute forLogic, Language, and Computation.

Lehmann, Thomas. 1993. A grammar of modern Tamil. Pondicherry Institute ofLinguistic Culture.

Prince, Alan & Paul Smolensky. 2004. Optimality Theory: Constraint interactionin generative grammar. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Schiffman, Harold. 1999. A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Spenader, Jennifer, Erik-Jan Smits & Petra Hendriks. 2009. Coherent discoursesolves the Pronoun Interpretation Problem. Journal of Child Language 36. 23-52.

Tomasello, Michael. 2003. Constructing a language: A usage-based theory oflanguage acquisition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Uriagereka, Juan. 1995. The syntax of clitic placement in Western Romance.Linguistic Inquiry 26(1). 79-123.


Ursula Kania (BA/MA) is a research assistant and PhD student at theUniversity of Leipzig, Germany. She teaches undergraduate courses in(synchronic and diachronic) English linguistics. Her main researchinterests are construction grammar and usage-based approaches to first andsecond language acquisition. She is a member of the German CognitiveLinguistics Association (GCLA/DGKL) and the International Association forthe Study of Child Language (IASCL). Her PhD project is entitled 'TheL1-Acquisition of (non)canonical polar question constructions in English.'

Page Updated: 21-Jun-2012