The acquisition of adjunct control: Grammar and processing

Juliana Gerard

This dissertation uses children’s acquisition of adjunct control as a case study to investigate grammatical and performance accounts of language acquisition. In previous research, children have consistently exhibited non-adultlike behavior for sentences with adjunct control. To explain children’s behavior, several different grammatical accounts have been proposed, but evidence for these accounts has been inconclusive. In this dissertation, I take two approaches to account for children’s errors.

First, I spell out the predictions of previous grammatical accounts, and test these predictions after accounting for some methodological concerns that might have influenced children’s behavior in previous studies. While I reproduce the non-adultlike behavior observed in previous studies, the predictions of previous grammatical accounts are not borne out, suggesting that extragrammatical factors are needed to explain children’s behavior.

Next, I consider the role of two different types of extragrammatical factors in predicting children’s non-adultlike behavior. With a new task designed to address the task demands in previous studies, children exhibit significantly higher accuracy than with previous tasks. This suggests that children’s behavior has been influenced by task- specific processing factors. In addition to the task, I also test the predictions of a similarity-based interference account, which links children’s errors to the same memory mechanisms involved in sentence processing difficulties observed in adults. These predictions are borne out, supporting a more continuous developmental trajectory as children’s processing mechanisms become more resistant to interference.

Finally, I consider how children’s errors might influence their acquisition of adjunct control, given the distribution in the linguistic input. I discuss the results of a corpus analysis, including the possibility that adjunct control could be learned from the input. The kinds of information that could be useful to a learner become much more limited, however, after considering the processing limitations that would interfere with the representations available to the learner.