Scope and Specificity in Child Language: A Cross-Linguistic Study on English and Chinese

Yi-ching Su

This dissertation investigated the way in which English-speaking and Chinese- speaking children interpret ‘a’ and ‘yi-ge’ respectively in sentences containing the universal quantifier or negation. Three series of experiments were conducted, using a truth value judgement task. The first experiment examined how children interpreted unambiguous double object sentences like “Snow White gave a lady every flower” and ambiguous to-dative sentences like “The teacher gave every ball to a girl” in English and Chinese. The results showed that English-speaking children assigned a non-adult universal wide scope reading to the double object sentences, and their pattern of preference for to-dative sentences was the opposite from adults. Chinese-speaking children showed the same pattern of interpretations as adults for both sentence types. The second experiment tested the hypothesis that English-speaking children’s non-adult interpretation resulted from their interpreting the double object sentences via the corresponding to-dative sentences. Sentences like “The witch threw the Pooh his chair” and “The smurf brought his brother Tigger” were used for testing, in which “his” can co- refer with the other object NP in the former but not in the latter. If children interpreted the double object sentences via the corresponding to-dative sentences, the possibility of co-reference for the pronoun would be different. The results showed that since English- speaking children had adult-like interpretations for the sentences tested, the hypothesis was not supported. The third experiment tested the hypothesis that at an early stage of development, English-speaking children interpret ‘a’ as meaning free choice “any”, whereas Chinese- speaking children consider ‘yi-ge’ to mean “exactly one”. Sentences with negation like “Mickey Mouse didn’t ride a dog” were presented both in a context in which Mickey Mouse didn’t ride one of the dogs, and in a context in which he didn’t ride any of the dogs. The results showed that Chinese-speaking children predominantly accepted the former reading, but English-speaking children preferred the latter reading. The results of the three experiments suggest that English-speaking and Chinese- speaking children start off with a limited but different interpretations for ‘a’ and ‘yi-ge’, and this results in the differences in scope assignment.