This dissertation examines the impact of the type of referring expression on the acquisition of word order variation in German-speaking preschoolers. A puzzle in the area of language acquisition concerns the production-comprehension asymmetry for non-canonical sentences like “Den Affen fängt die Kuh.” (“The monkey, the cow chases.”), that is, preschoolers usually have difficulties in accurately understanding non-canonical sentences approximately until age six (e.g., Dittmar et al., 2008) although they produce non-canonical sentences already around age three (e.g., Poeppel & Wexler, 1993;Weissenborn, 1990). This dissertation investigated the production and comprehension of non-canonical sentences to address this issue.
Three corpus analyses were conducted to investigate the impact of givenness, topic status and the type of referring expression on word order in the spontaneous speech of two- to four-year-olds and the child-directed speech produced by their mothers. The positioning of the direct object in ditransitive sentences was examined;in particular, sentences in which the direct object occurred before or after the indirect object in the sentence-medial positions and sentences in which it occurred in the sentence-initial position. The results reveal similar ordering patterns for children and adults. Word order variation was to a large extent predictable from the type of referring expression, especially with respect to the word order involving the sentence-medial positions. Information structure (e.g., topic status) had an additional impact only on word order variation that involved the sentence-initial position.
Two comprehension experiments were conducted to investigate whether the type of referring expression and topic status influences the comprehension of non-canonical transitive sentences in four- and five-year-olds. In the first experiment, the topic status of the one of the sentential arguments was established via a preceding context sentence, and in the second experiment, the type of referring expression for the sentential arguments was additionally manipulated by using either a full lexical noun phrase (NP) or a personal pronoun. The results demonstrate that children’s comprehension of non-canonical sentences improved when the topic argument was realized as a personal pronoun and this improvement was independent of the grammatical role of the arguments. However, children’s comprehension was not improved when the topic argument was realized as a lexical NP.
In sum, the results of both production and comprehension studies support the view that referring expressions may be seen as a sentence-level cue to word order and to the information status of the sentential arguments. The results highlight the important role of the type of referring expression on the acquisition of word order variation and indicate that the production-comprehension asymmetry is reduced when the type of referring expression is considered.