Language Acquisition Lab, Dept. of Linguistics
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Projects for 2012-2013
1. “The boy is painting his face” Whose face?!
Terue Miyashita, our Japanese visitor two years ago, came back this spring to ask English-learning children more questions about how they understand “the” and “his” and “her.” For example, we can say “the boy is painting his face” when the boy is painting his own portrait and also when he is painting his friend’s portrait. What about, “The boy is painting the face”?
Do children use these words with both meanings or do they start with one of them? Are they more likely to answer differently when the object is a part of a person’s body, as opposed to something they can just pick up and put down. Terue found in previous work that children younger than five tended to interpret the possessive pronoun as referring to someone other than the speaker, although the tendency was weaker when body-part nouns were used.
In this phase, Terue is using sentences with “a” in contrasts like: I broke a finger” (the speaker’s) and “I slept in a car yesterday” (not necessarily the speaker’s). She is also making the task a little more difficult using sentences where the verb is understood but isn’t said, as in “This girl Red is pulling her ear, and (boy) Blue is, too. Is that right?” Children were split in their answers, but they were less likely to choose the picture where the actor was choosing his own head when the sentence had an unstated verb, a gender mismatch, and was negative: “Green is touching her head, but (boy) Blue isn’t.”
These simple sentences involve deep grammatical principles about possible relationships between words in all languages or in specific languages. And there are so many variations to try out, Terue and her colleagues will probably be busy with these questions for several years to come.
2. Which question word is really asking the question?
Last year, Mike Clauss began exploring children's treatment of sentences with two question words. For "Was what Dora ate tasty?"—with one yes/no question and one “wh” question--will the children say whether it was tasty? or will they tell you what Dora ate?
We know that when presented with sentences with two wh-question words, about 20% of the time children ages 3 to 6 answer the “lower” question, rather than the “upper” one. That is, for "Who did you ask where Billy went?" many will answer the “where” question instead of the “who” question. By contrast, almost no children, even at ages 3 and 4 answered “Was what Dora ate tasty?” as if the question was "What did Dora eat?" This year Mike varied the stories according to what was “the Question Under Discussion.” That is, if the story before the question is about the thing that Dora ate (as opposed to being about whether different things are tasty), he found children were more likely to answer "Was what Dora ate tasty" as if it was "What did Dora eat."
He, too, has more ages and different kinds of questions to explore before he can start making conclusions.
3. Imagine a picture of two children: How many hands do the children have?
What is your first idea? Two? Four? We find with adults, it’s 50-50 for hands, but much more likely to be four rather than two for something like books. Some adults will answer four unless there’s an “each” in the sentence, and some will answer two unless there’s an “all together.”
Tom Roeper and I (Barbara Pearson) are investigating age-related patterns in how native English speaking children (L1), grown-ups learning English as a second language (L2), and L1 and L2 teenagers learn these things. How strongly do the words “each” and “every” change people’s interpretations? Does different syntax change interpretations? Or, do people make their decisions based mostly on what they know about the objects being talked about? We are also exploring the effect their intuitions about whether to count things all together or separately have an effect on how students understand word problems in mathematics.
For example: “Two children found four caterpillars.” Is that 8 caterpillars, or 4? Did each child find 4? or did they find 4 together?
Two years ago, we found that a large minority of younger children calculated 8 caterpillars. There’s nothing to say that is the wrong interpretation, but the percentage of older children who treated it as an addition problem decreased. Third and fourth graders tended to still “distribute” the children, but counted the caterpillars “collectively” (and so they divided): “Two children (each) found four caterpillars (together).” We went to the high school this year and so far we have found that only 10% of the students answered “8 caterpillars”—but for “Four boys bought 8 cookies for $1,” 20% calculated the total amount spent (distributively) as $4 or $32, while most divided $1 by the number of boys and number of cookies. For other questions, the teens weren’t like the children, but they weren’t altogether like the adults either.
What happens if you change the syntax? “In our hospital, a nurse cares for every patient” can be either one nurse for all the patients, or lots of nurses--distributing patients to nurses, (with a preference for more nurses). Is it different when the clause is more complex: “In our hospital, a nurse wants to care for every patient”? Now, the nurse and the patients are in different clauses. Does this syntax restrict the interpretation to just one nurse (treating the patients collectively as a group)? It should. However, people’s knowledge of the real-world relationships between objects also plays a role and can over-ride these implicit (covert) meanings of words and change the interpretations. Fifty percent of the teens made the distinction between the simple and complex sentences, compared to 83% of adults.
It does seem, therefore, that there are ambiguities that can--and sometimes do--add difficulty to word problems that has nothing to do with how well the student knows the times tables.
4. Where does “every” fit in the sentence?
Amanda Rizun and Jeremy Hartman are trying to find where children will stop the quantifier word from “floating” to different parts of the sentence. It’s a well-known fact (in developmental semantics), that children treat every in a sentence differently than adults do: If you ask, “Is every girl riding a bicycle?” where there is a picture of 3 girls riding a bicycle and an extra (empty) bicycle, adults and teens say “yes,” but perfectly typical and intelligent children (some of them as old as 9-year-olds) will say “no, not that bicycle.”
Our interpretation is that they know the meaning of the word every, but not where to attach it in the “tree” for the sentence. If they put it at the “top” of the tree, it will refer not only to the girl, but to all the events in the picture (of bikes being ridden by girls as well as girls riding bikes). After all, the word “all” can float in a sentence: “All the boys sang” is the same as “the boys all sang”; how do you know that “every” can’t float, too?
Amanda and Jeremy are trying to find sentences where children won’t float the quantifier. For example, will children let the quantifier float if subject and object are the different, but the event is the same? e.g. 3 dogs eating a bone + 1 bunny eating a carrot. They are also trying scenarios with different events as well: 3 men kicking a ball and 1 woman riding a scooter. They have found that children include even inanimate random objects that aren't participating in any event. For "Every teacher is writing on the blackboard, is that right or wrong?" (relative to the picture they are showing), some children said, "Wrong, because there's a flowerpot just sitting there."
They are still analyzing the patterns by ages, and this is not the end of the story: they have lots of other combinations and sentence frames they want to try as well.