Children’s non-adultlike interpretations of telic predicates across languages

Fabienne Martin, Hamida Demirdache, Isabel García del Real, Angeliek van Hout, Nina Kazanina

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The acquisition literature has documented several different types of misinterpretations of telic sentences by children, yet a comprehensive analysis of these child interpretations has not been attempted and a crosslinguistic perspective is lacking. This task is not easy, for, on the surface, children's non-adultlike interpretations appear to be scattered and even contradictory across languages. Several cognitive biases have been proposed to explain given patterns (children initially adhere to a Manner bias, or alternatively a Result bias). Reviewing a wide range of studies on the acquisition of telic sentences in relation to tense-aspect markers, we show that children's non-adultlike interpretations fall into three different patterns. We conclude that the diversity of non-adultlike interpretations that is found across child languages is incompatible with accounts that rely on these cognitive, language-independent principles, but instead is triggered by language-specific properties. Analyzing these patterns in detail, it appears that child learners across languages have problems with tense-aspect forms with variable meanings, in contrast to forms with a one-to-one form/meaning mappings which are acquired earlier. While adults use a context-sensitive interpretation of forms with multiple meanings, various semantic-pragmatic sources can explain children's difficulties with interpreting such forms. All explanations that we identify across child languages rely on children's immature command of pragmatic reasoning, albeit in very different ways for the three different patterns. Thus, by taking a crosslinguistic semantic approach and integrating detailed insights from the tense-aspect semantics of specific languages with universal pragmatic effects, we explain the non-adultlike interpretation of telic sentences in a variety of child languages in a comprehensive way.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1447-1500
Number of pages54
Issue number5
Early online date26-Sep-2020
Publication statusPublished - 26-Nov-2020

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