Syrett in Linguistics Colloquium Friday Sept. 23 at 3:30

Kristen Syrett (Rutgers) will give the Linguistics colloquium on Friday, September 23 at 3:30 in ILC N400. A title and abstract of her talk follow.


Challenges in children’s acquisition of comparatives


Comparative constructions can range from those that are quite simple and easy to interpret (Hillary is smarter than Donald.) to those that are complex, and wreak havoc on the sentence processer, often leaving the interpreter confused as to whether the sentence is acceptable, even if it is somehow interpretable (?More reporters wanted her_i to talk her_i emails and health status than about Hillary_i/j’s considerable experience qualifying her for the Oval Office.). While comparatives such as the second example are admittedly uncommon in adult conversations, let alone child-directed speech, we somehow develop the capacity to make sense of these constructions in the course of language acquisition.

Let us assume that the ability to interpret comparative constructions rests (for the most part) with a bundle of grammatical mechanisms (for example, quantifier raising, interpretation of ellipsis), and structural relations like c-command. Given independent evidence from a number of acquisition studies that children can properly interpret constructions in which these aspects are implicated, we might predict that children would demonstrate early success with comparative constructions. However, children continue to produce non-adult-like comparatives well past age 5-6. And while comprehension of basic comparatives is manifested 2-3 years earlier (as one might expect), children’s interpretation of more complex comparatives remains notably non-adult-like. To what source(s) can we attribute this difference between children and adults?

In this talk, I will present evidence from a set of studies probing children’s interpretation of comparatives, focusing on the acquisition of differential comparatives in particular. The results highlight specific challenges children face as comparative constructions become increasingly more complex, in particular the features of the semantic representation giving rise to non-adult-like responses – even when those features are licensed by an adult-like grammar.

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