Unification in child language

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Abstract

This chapter is, in some sense, an update on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate in the realm of developmental semantics. We report the findings from experimental studies designed to adjudicate between a usage-based approach to language acquisition, and a nativist approach. The studies we review were inspired in large part by the model of the language apparatus proposed by Gennaro Chierchia (see especially Chierchia 2004). Several features of the model have been the focus of experimental investigations of child language, including children’s sensitivity to scalar implicatures and their knowledge of several linguistic phenomena that, on the surface, do not appear to be related, but which Chierchia’s model has sought to unify. More specifically, the same linguistic contexts that cancel scalar implicatures (downward-entailing contexts) are also contexts that license negative polarity items and ones that generate a “conjunctive” interpretation of disjunction. We have been investigating these properties in children’s emerging grammars in two typologically distinct languages, Mandarin Chinese and English. In this chapter, we summarize some of the main findings of these investigations. Two interpretations of disjunction This section reviews the basic tenets of the alternative approaches to language acquisition that will feature prominently in the remainder of the chapter: the usage-based (nurture) approach and the nativist approach. To frame the discussion, we will focus on the interpretation of disjunction as seen from these alternative perspectives. First, preliminary remarks about the semantics of disjunction are in order.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFrom Grammar to Meaning: The Spontaneous Logicality of Language
EditorsIvano Caponigro, Carlo Cecchetto
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Pages235-265
Number of pages31
ISBN (Electronic)9781139519328
ISBN (Print)9781107033108
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2013

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