easily imagined errors

John Myhill john at RESEARCH.HAIFA.AC.IL
Fri Apr 25 05:31:45 UTC 1997

For, e.g. 'Is daddy coming?' my 5-year-old daughter has been saying
'Right daddy's coming?' (with the right intonation) for I think at least 6
months now, steadfastly resisting all efforts to teach her inversion. This
was preceded for a considerable length of time by 'What, daddy's coming?'
(again with the right intonation). She seems to be assuming that the way to
form questions is by prefixing an invariant particle ('right' or 'what')
and changing the intonation (like e.g. Japanese 'ka', except that 'ka'
comes at the end of the clause). In discussing how children learn this
construction, you do not say that researchers have noticed this strategy,
but my daughter seems to be quite taken with it. Is she pathological, or
have researchers just not noticed that this is how some young children try
to ask questions?   John Myhill

>  I agree.  It is true that the fact that Chomsky was wrong about the facts
>concerning the distribution of data to derive the structure-dependency
>generalization does not mean that the rest of Chomsky's argument is wrong.
>It is true that, as you and Chomsky say, there is something that "keeps
>children from making some fairly easy to imagine errors."  But these "easy
>to imagine errors" are not actually ones that ever occurred to the child.
>The child never tries to derive questions from the corresponding
>declaratives (as several previous email messages have noted).  Because of
>this, the linear movement or transformation generalization was not one that
>the child was considering in the first place.
>  I agree that the question is how the child accesses semantic structure in
>a disciplined enough way to avoid egregious errors.  To explore this, we
>don't need the hard examples.  We can just look at a sentence like "Is
>Daddy coming?"  There is a pretty rich child language literature on the
>development of questions.  For this type of question, there appears to be a
>stage when the aux is missing and we have just "Daddy coming?"  The
>intonation is there, as is the verb and the subject.  Only later, it
>appears, does the child add the aux.  I think this path makes sense.  The
>most uniform, reliable marker of the question across types in English is
>the intonation.  That gets mapped first, along with the core proposition.
>Then the embroidery gets added later.  The aux wasn't moved, it was just
>added.  When we get to the harder examples, the story is the same, since
>the complex-NP subject is a cognitive unit the child doesn't look to it for
>the required aux.
>--Brian MacWhinney

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