The inspiration

The primary goal of the project is to extend an existing research framework for investigating syntactic acquisition to account for other phenomena central to syntactic theory, with the ultimate goal of creating a more complete theory of the cognitive architecture that gives rise to human knowledge of syntax. Previously, this framework was leveraged to successfully account for the acquisition of several syntactic islands, which involve the distribution of the gaps associated with long-distance wh-dependencies. The current project has pioneered an integrated framework of the language development process that harnesses multiple state-of-the-art techniques (corpus analysis, experimental meta-analysis, and cognitive computational modeling). We have used this framework to investigate current theories of both complex syntactic knowledge and how that knowledge develops in children.

One focus of the current project has been on the linking problem, which concerns how children map the conceptual representations often thought of as thematic roles to syntactic positions. We use the empirically-grounded, integrated quantitative framework we developed to implement different approaches to solving the linking problem. Using successful verb class learning as an evaluation metric, we embed each approach within a concrete model of the acquisition process and see which learning assumptions are able to match children’s verb learning behavior at different ages. This allows us to identify a specific developmental trajectory of learning assumptions necessary for successful syntactic acquisition, with implications both for theories of representation and theories of how those representations are acquired.

The results

There were several products of this project, including updated versions of the CHILDES Treebank, several publications relating to the integrated quantitative framework we use and/or the linking problem, and one workshop dedicated to the links between syntactic theory, acquisition, and processing theory.