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Michael Tomasello (1999) - Do Young Children Have Adult Syntactic Competence?

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Do young children have adult syntactic competence?

Michael Tomasello (1999)

Do young children have adult syntactic competence, by Michael Tomasello in 1999, tries to explain the syntactic competence and reading ability in children. He tries to draw a distinction between adult syntactic competence and the ones that children to see whether there is a direct connection between the two.

According to Tomasello to become a competent speaker of a natural language it is necessary to be conventional as well as to be creative.  He also notes that kids are able to say things or words that they have never heard before. In his book Tomasello notes that young children operate with adult-like linguistic competence and he named this “continuity assumption”. Continuity assumption is able to describe young children’s language with adult-like formal grammar.

To him young children’s creativity-productivity- with languages has been grossly overestimated. He notes that beginning language learners are not creative or productive with their language in some other basic ways for example they do not use a verb in a sentence frame in which they have not heard. This lack of productivity suggests that young children do not yet possess abstract and verb-general argument structure constructions into which different verbs may be substituted for one another as needed. Most children’s early language is “grammatical” from the adult point of view. The two different explanations for this fact are; children are operating from the beginning with adult-like grammatical categories and schemas and learning to use specific linguistic items and structures.

Tomasello notes that there are 2 basic methods that focus on children productivity. One is analysis of children’s spontaneous speech and the second one is teaching children new linguistic items and seeing what they do with them. These 2 methods help to specify which aspects structures and which ones are generated on the basis of abstract linguistic categories and schemas. Researchers found that most children had some general patterns, as evidenced by the fact that they sometimes used semantically similar items in similar ways at a given developmental period for example using verbs eat and drink in similar ways at a given time. This is due to a child’s competence or her imitative learning from adults

According to the Verb Island Hypothesis children’s early language is organized and structured totally around individual verbs and other predicative terms that is a 2-year-old child’s syntactic competence is comprised totally of verb-specific constructions with open nominal slots. Similar results were found for determiners (Lieven, et al 1997), and in Italian (Pizutto and Caselli 1994) and Brazilian Portuguese (Rubino and Pine 1998) speakers.  As expected, the verb forms that were most widely used were those that were most frequently heard, such as first person singular, as opposed to third person plural.  Berman and Armon-Lotem (1995) showed that in Hebrew, the first 20 verbs learned by children were memorized and morphologically unanalyzed. In spontaneous speech also exists overgeneralized errors because, presumably, children have not heard such firms used in adult speech

Data intensive studies show a very clear pattern. Firstly young children’s earliest linguistics productions revolve around concrete items and structures, secondly each of these items and structures undergoes and its own development and thirdly this pattern persists in most cases until around the third birthday. According to the experimental data it’s shown that if given a tracer element, children by 3.5 or 4 years can readily assimilate novel verbs to abstract syntactic categories and schemas they bring to the experiment for example change of Rick to Ricked or Fud to Fudded. Tomasello’s study on 15 kids 1; 6 to 1; 11 exposed to multiple adult models of two novel nouns and two novel verbs multiple times a day over 10 days. From this study it showed no difference in production of novel verbs or nouns however there was difference in combination as they combined nouns freely. In Akhtar and Tomasello study only 1 transitive utterance with the test verb

Akhtar’s modeled non-canonical English with 2;8, 3;6 and 4;4 , when the kids heard one of  the non-canonical SOV or VSO children behaved differently at different ages. Young children hesitated, showing they knew the construction was strange, but it wasn’t enough to overcome tendency to imitate adults. Pinker proposed that children’s improvement is fueled by three constraints

  1. Semantic subclasses that is verbs belong to subclasses which directs behavior
  2. Entrenchment that is the more children hear a verb used in a particular construction, the less likely they will be to extend them. Entrenchment works early from 3;0 or before
  3. Preemption: Hearing a construction preempts use of an incorrect one for example If a child expects “He disappeared the rabbit” but hears “He made the rabbit disappear,” he is less likely to produce the former

He notes that preemption and semantic subclasses begin later perhaps not until 4; 6 or later.

There are 3 theories that explain the implications of the continuity model. The first one is the full competence plus external developments which claims that continuity assumption is in trouble because the data shows that children’s grammar is not the same as adults’. Generativists respond by saying the grammar is complete, but external factors conceal true competence. The second theory is full competence plus maturation. It states that maturation occurs not in universal grammar itself but in aspects of linguistic competence considered peripheral to universal grammar. The third one is lexicalism. It states that all UG principles are in place but the grammar of particular language develops gradually through the interaction of abstract knowledge and learning of lexicon



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