syntax in the early school years

Brian MacWhinney macw at CMU.EDU
Wed Nov 5 00:05:15 UTC 1997

   You just now posted a note to FunkNet asking for pointers to recent
discussions of syntactic acquisition in the early school years.  I actually
had two contacts yesterday that required me to field exactly this question.
One was from a student, another from a colleague.  I answered that the truth
is that, by age 5, children really know just about all there is to know
about the forms of English.  What they don't yet know are the mappings from
form to function or the mappings between functions.  One would think that
this would provide a happy hunting ground for functionally-oriented studies
of language development, but that hasn't really happened, largely because
these studies require one to have good comparable stimuli to elicit
functionally interesting performances.  And the analysis of production data
is extremely tedious.  Berman and Slobin's work on the frog stories or
parallel work on narratives from Maya Hickmann and Annette Karmiloff-Smith
are examples of some of the best work in this area.
  But you seem to be looking for a description that says, for example, that
cleft sentences increase by a certain percentage each year.  They do indeed,
but what is interesting is why they do.  I think that you shouldn't shy away
too much from studies that look at "particular constructions such as passive
or anaphora."  In fact, the problem is that we just don't have enough
studies of the development of these particular constructions in the
increasingly rich discourse formats required by the school environment.
   Given the gaps in the functionalist literature, I would tend to point
your teacher friends toward the work on the learning of composition.  I
think Myra Shuaghnessy is a classic in that area.  There at least, one gets
the sense of rich database and a real problem that schooling can address.

--Brian MacWhinney

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