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Bookmark and Share Paper 1570

Semantic and Pragmatic Language Development: Children Know 'That' Better
Nadya Modyanova and Ken Wexler
297-308 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


This paper investigates whether children's known misinterpretation of the to mean one of is due to underdeveloped semantics (a deficit in the semantic property of Uniqueness (Wexler 2005)) or underdeveloped pragmatics or cognition (due to Egocentrism (Piaget 1955)). For adults, correct comprehension of the is dictated by its semantic meaning, denoting a unique referent, whereas comprehension of that involves pragmatics: that refers to a familiar and highly salient referent. If children's deficits with the are due to underdeveloped cognition/pragmatics, then we expect to see no difference between the and that in acquisition. Comprehension of articles was investigated in 93 children (3;2-10;10 years) using an act-out experiment (modeled after Karmiloff-Smith 1979). Children were presented with an array of several identical objects and instructed to first manipulate a object and then to manipulate either a, the, or that object, thus the number of times the same object was subsequently acted upon served as the dependent variable. Significant performance differences were found between the and that conditions across all children, with children picking more same objects with that than with the. This indicates that children can use pragmatics for the interpretation of that better than they can use the semantic feature of uniqueness for the interpretation of the. The dissociation supports Wexler's Uniqueness analysis (2005) and lays doubt on Egocentrism as an account of the way children use determiners.

Published in

Proceedings of the 2nd Conference on Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition North America (GALANA)
edited by Alyona Belikova, Luisa Meroni, and Mari Umeda
Table of contents
Printed edition: $320.00