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Martin Hackl on the Acquisition of "Only"

Martin Hackl (MIT) gave the department colloquium on Friday, Nov. 21. The title of his talk was: On the Acquisition and processing of “only”: Question Answer Congruence, Scalar Presupposition, and the Structure of ALT(S). An abstract follows.

In this talk, which is based on ongoing joint work with Ayaka Sugawara, Erin Olson, and Ken Wexler, I will suggest an approach to understand a curious phenomenon concerning the acquisition of only. As Crain et al. (1992, 1994) showed, children up to at least age six display a surprisingly robust rate of assigning non-adult interpretations to sentences with subject only. For instance, children may judge Kermit’s answer in (1a) to the question Kermit, can you tell me what happened? as true relative to a scene where a cat is holding a flag, a goose is holding a flag and a balloon, and a frog is holding a balloon. Moreover, when asked why they think Kermit was correct, they offer justifications indicating that they assigned (1a) an interpretation as in (1b).

(1) What happened?

a. Only the cat is holding a flag.

b. The cat is only holding a flag.

Crain et al.’s results have been replicated since for a number of languages including German, Japanese, and Mandarin suggesting that at least some the factors at play operate on properties of sentences with only that are invariant across languages. I will argue, based on results from a series of experiments with children and adults, for three such factors – A. Question-Answer Congruence, B. the scalar presupposition of only, and C. the nature of the set of alternatives, ALT(S), relevant for the interpretation of only – and propose a simple comprehension model for sentences with only that offers a principled characterization of when sentences with only are relatively easy or relatively difficult to comprehend.

Christodoulou speaks at LARC

Christiana Christodoulou, Department of English Studies, University of Cyprus and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gave a talk at LARC on Nov. 21. Title and abstract to follow:

Title: Subject-Verb Agreement in Down Syndrome: Is you walks in Greek the same as he walk in English?

Abstract: Previous work on the production of subject-verb (S/V) agreement by individuals diagnosed with Down Syndrome (DS) reveal inconsistencies across languages. While studies on English individuals with DS report severe impairment with S/V agreement, Schaner-Wolles (2004) shows high accuracy rates for German individuals with DS. Despite the evidently low IQ and comparatively lower MLU scores, the morphosyntactic analysis on Cypriot Greek adults diagnosed with Down Syndrome (DS) shows close to ceiling performance: 98.5% accuracy for person and 99% accuracy for number. Preliminary analysis shows that younger children with DS present parallel performance. I suggest that differences determined to be morphosyntactic in nature, typically follow a pattern of selecting the default form for each inflectional feature – the 3rd value for person and the singular value for number – instead of the targeted one. I will also present a preliminary analysis on why these discrepancies across languages occur.

Pearson and Roeper at ASHA

Barbara Zurer Pearson and Tom Roeper had a seminar at the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) annual meeting November 22 in Orlando. The seminar was entitled "Evidence-based Therapy Materials to Foster School Language in 4- to 9-year-old Children from Diverse Backgrounds,”  and it was in cooperation with  co-authors  Frenette Southwood, and Ondene van Dulm. Frenette and Ondene translated the DELV (Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation, Seymour, Roeper & de Villiers, 2005) into Afrikaans and also published a series of therapy materials in English and Afrikaans to accompany the tests, adding materials on Binding, Ellipsis, and Conjunctions to a selection of DELV topics including complex WH-questions, Quantifiers, Articles, Passives, Narrative, and Role-taking. One purpose is to continue to bring the DELV and its linguistics focus to an audience of speech-language practitioners and researchers. 


Welcome to the Language Acquisition Lab in the Department of Linguistics at UMass Amherst! We study how children acquire language, including first, second, and bilingual acquisition. Our experiments explore the questions generated by core areas of linguistic theory, including syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. The results, in turn, shape those theories and inform our understanding of language and the human mind.

Our studies have been conducted in languages such as Japanese, Tamil, Italian, German, French, Spanish, and English. Some of our work was highlighted in The Human Language Series, a national PBS special on language.

Although the primary focus of our lab is experimental research, our results have been used to benefit children at various stages of development, educators, speech pathologists, and others involved with language issues. We collaborated with other departments to develop a diagnostic test for disorders (DELV, Pearson Assessments, 2003, 2005) that is currently being used with children across the US. For more information on interdisciplinary projects and collaborations with the Five Colleges, please visit the Language Acquisition Research Center (LARC).