Language development: Form and function in emerging grammars
The research reported is an investigation into the early acquisition of grammar by three children from the age of approximately 19 months. Previous psycholinguistic studies of child language in this period had revealed the orderly arrangements of words, but described only the form of early sentences and not their linguistic function or meaning. In this study, in contrast, nonlinguistic information from situational and behavioral context was used to infer the semantic intent of the children’s utterances for analyzing the development of early grammar. Judgments of semantic intent made it possible to describe the inherent structure of early word combinations so that conclusions could be drawn about the children's knowledge of semantic-syntactic relationship in the derivation of sentences. The development of the semantics and syntax of negation was described further until mean length of utterance approached 3.0 morphemes and the children were about 28 months old. Attending to what the children said in relation to what they were talking about−the situation and behavior that cooccurred with what they said−led to the conclusion that language acquisition is critically related to developments in cognition, perception, and a child’s interaction in a world of objects, events, and relations. Other conclusions concerned constraints that appeared to operate on the developing length and complexity of utterances, and the different strategies the children used in their approaches to learning the language. A large body of data is presented in support of these conclusions with an extensive catalog of the children's earliest two-word utterances, negative sentences, and syntactic and single-word lexicons.
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