Oda-Christina Brandt-Kobele

Comprehension of verb inflection in German-speaking children

ISBN: 978-3-86956-216-2
325 pages
Release year 2014

Series: Spektrum Patholinguistik - Schriften , 6

17,50 

Previous studies on the acquisition of verb inflection in normally developing children have revealed an astonishing pattern: children use correctly inflected verbs in their own speech but fail to make use of verb inflections when comprehending sentences uttered by others. Thus, a three-year old might well be able to say something like ‘The cat sleeps on the bed’, but fails to understand that the same sentence, when uttered by another person, refers to only one sleeping cat but not more than one. The previous studies that have examined children”s comprehension of verb inflections have employed a variant of a picture selection task in which the child was asked to explicitly indicate (via pointing) what semantic meaning she had inferred from the test sentence. Recent research on other linguistic structures, such as pronouns or focus particles, has indicated that earlier comprehension abilities can be found when methods are used that do not require an explicit reaction, like preferential looking tasks. This dissertation aimed to examine whether children are truly not able to understand the connection the the verb form and the meaning of the sentence subject until the age of five years or whether earlier comprehension can be found when a different measure, preferential looking, is used. Additionally, children”s processing of subject-verb agreement violations was examined. The three experiments of this thesis that examined children”s comprehension of verb inflections revealed the following: German-speaking three- to four-year old children looked more to a picture showing one actor when hearing a sentence with a singular inflected verb but only when their eye gaze was tracked and they did not have to perform a picture selection task. When they were asked to point to the matching picture, they performed at chance-level. This pattern indicates asymmetries in children”s language performance even within the receptive modality. The fourth experiment examined sensitivity to subject-verb agreement violations and did not reveal evidence for sensitivity toward agreement violations in three- and four-year old children, but only found that children”s looking patterns were influenced by the grammatical violations at the age of five. The results from these experiments are discussed in relation to the existence of a production-comprehension asymmetry in the use of verb inflections and children”s underlying grammatical knowledge.

Previous studies on the acquisition of verb inflection in normally developing children have revealed an astonishing pattern: children use correctly inflected verbs in their own speech but fail to make use of verb inflections when comprehending sentences uttered by others. Thus, a three-year old might well be able to say something like ‘The cat sleeps on the bed’, but fails to understand that the same sentence, when uttered by another person, refers to only one sleeping cat but not more than one. The previous studies that have examined children”s comprehension of verb inflections have employed a variant of a picture selection task in which the child was asked to explicitly indicate (via pointing) what semantic meaning she had inferred from the test sentence. Recent research on other linguistic structures, such as pronouns or focus particles, has indicated that earlier comprehension abilities can be found when methods are used that do not require an explicit reaction, like preferential looking tasks. This dissertation aimed to examine whether children are truly not able to understand the connection the the verb form and the meaning of the sentence subject until the age of five years or whether earlier comprehension can be found when a different measure, preferential looking, is used. Additionally, children”s processing of subject-verb agreement violations was examined. The three experiments of this thesis that examined children”s comprehension of verb inflections revealed the following: German-speaking three- to four-year old children looked more to a picture showing one actor when hearing a sentence with a singular inflected verb but only when their eye gaze was tracked and they did not have to perform a picture selection task. When they were asked to point to the matching picture, they performed at chance-level. This pattern indicates asymmetries in children”s language performance even within the receptive modality. The fourth experiment examined sensitivity to subject-verb agreement violations and did not reveal evidence for sensitivity toward agreement violations in three- and four-year old children, but only found that children”s looking patterns were influenced by the grammatical violations at the age of five. The results from these experiments are discussed in relation to the existence of a production-comprehension asymmetry in the use of verb inflections and children”s underlying grammatical knowledge.