Children’s acquisition of adverbial sentences in English

Invited talk in Linguistics and Phonetics by Laura de Ruiter, University of Manchester

Being able to express and understand complex relationships between events are important communicative skills. In English, these relationships are typically expressed using complex sentences (i.e., sentences that consist of more than one clause). Although children start producing adverbial sentences like “I can't do that (be)cause I've got no nails” or “Before you got in I dropped a leaf” around the age of 3, studies on children’s comprehension have produced conflicting results regarding the age at which they understand these sentences, and the factors that influence comprehension. Furthermore, relatively little is known about how children’s own production of adverbial sentences relates to the speech input they are exposed to.

Our project in the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD) set out to get a more comprehensive picture of children’s acquisition of adverbial sentences. In my talk I’ll first give a brief introduction to adverbial sentences and a short overview of previous studies in this area. I’ll then present three studies:

In Study 1, we tested 4- and 5-year-olds’ comprehension of adverbial sentences with afterbefore, because, and if in both clause orders, such as “After he eats a green pear he drinks some water”/”He drinks some water after he eats a green pear”. We tested four different theoretical accounts that make different predictions regarding the main factor influencing children’s comprehension: a semantic account, a syntactic account, a frequency-based account, and a capacity-constrained (memory-based) account. I will describe the four different accounts, provide details of our experiment, and explain why our results are best explained by the semantic account.

In Study 2, we tested how information structure (‘givenness’) influences children’s comprehension of adverbial sentences. We used the same sentences as in Study 1, but added a context sentence that made one clause of the sentences given (e.g., “Tom eats a green pear. After he eats a green pear, he drinks some water”). We how context and clause order may alter the preferences we had observed in Study 1. Our results show that even minimal context improves children’s comprehension overall, and that children are sensitive to information structure.

Study 3 is a corpus study, in which we analysed adverbial sentences in natural conversations between two children and their parents. We analysed the language that children heard from their parents (input) as well as the children’s own productions. We looked at both formal features (clause order, subjects, verb types etc.) and pragmatic features (speech act types). The results show that children’s production of adverbial sentences closely reflects the parents’ input, but also that children are able to use the constructions flexibly to suit their own communicative needs.

Taken together, our studies show that children’s acquisition of adverbial sentences is influenced by a combination of factors, and I will argue that they underline the need to keep an open mind with respect to the theoretical framework(s) we use in child language acquisition research.