Because the brain matures in the course of development, children’s cognitive resources are not the same as those of adults. Examples include memory capacity, access to memory, and cognitive control, the ability to mediate between conflicting sources of information. I’m interested in figuring out how these differences in cognitive resources affect the way children comprehend language, and how this impacts the learning process.

How does the timing of information in a sentence impact children’s comprehension?

Successful language comprehension involves identifying grammatical roles in a sentence (who did what to whom?). It also involves navigating sentences whose structure is temporarily ambiguous. Given these challenges, children (but not adults) often fail to arrive at correct sentence interpretations. This experiment will use some handy aspects of German word order to further explore whether kids are globally blind to certain types of morphosyntactic cue, or whether their underdeveloped cognitive control skills are to blame, using passives. Unlike active sentences, which name the agent (entity doing the action) first, passives first present the theme (entity the action is done to): “the seal was eaten by the shark” (passive) vs. “the seal was eating the fish” (active). Worse still, although the form of the main verb (“eating” vs. “eaten”) is an obvious cue to the sentence structure, it appears after comprehenders have already assumed that the seal is the agent, requiring them to revise the structure they hypothesise the sentence to take. German syntax allows the cue to passive to be placed before the agent or the theme, removing the need for syntactic revision. If this manipulation helps kids arrive at the correct sentence interpretation, this strengthens the case for parsing difficulties as a main source of differences between child and adult language processing.

This work will be featured as a poster at CUNY 2017! Co-authors are Yi Ting Huang, Jeff Lidz, Colin Phillips.

What is the role of processing in language acquisition?

This target article re-examines the premise that differences between child and adult language arise from a difference in underlying grammatical representations. We explore the idea that children’s progress in language acquisition is instead a result of early failures in processing capabilities, and investigate how processing phenomena in adult native speakers manifest themselves in child learners and bilinguals.

Phillips, Colin, and Ehrenhofer, Lara (2015).The role of processing in language acquisition.” Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 5(4), 409-453. (Target article with 17 commentaries.)

Phillips, Colin, and Ehrenhofer, Lara (2015). “Learning obscure and obvious properties of languages.” Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 5(4), 545-555. (Response to 17 commentaries.)