Endogenous sources of variation in language acquisition

Chung-hye Han, Jeffrey Lidz, Julien Musolino

A fundamental question in the study of human language acquisition centers around apportioning explanatory force between the experience of the learner and the core knowledge that allows learners to represent that experience. We provide a previously unidentified kind of data identifying children’s contribution to language acquisition. We identify one aspect of grammar that varies unpredictably across a population of speakers of what is ostensibly a single language. We further demonstrate that the grammatical knowledge of parents and their children is independent. The combination of unpredictable variation and parent–child independence suggests that the relevant structural feature is supplied by each learner independent of experience with the language. This structural feature is abstract because it controls variation in more than one construction. The particular case we examine is the position of the verb in the clause structure of Korean. Because Korean is a head-final language, evidence for the syntactic position of the verb is both rare and indirect. We show that (i) Korean speakers exhibit substantial variability regarding this aspect of the grammar, (ii) this variability is attested between speakers but not within a speaker, (iii) this variability controls interpretation in two surface constructions, and (iv) it is independent in parents and children. According to our findings, when the exposure language is compatible with multiple grammars, learners acquire a single systematic grammar. Our observation that children and their parents vary independently suggests that the choice of grammar is driven in part by a process operating internal to individual learners.