NB: This is is a deliberately BAD blog post that I wrote for a workshop on writing a GOOD blog post. You can read the GOOD version of this post at https://benambridge.wordpress.com/2022/04/25/do-fish-have-barcodes-and-other-baffling-questions/
Researchers at the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD) based at the University of Manchester recently published a study investigating non-inversion errors in English-speaking children’s production of wh-questions. In English, the subject (e.g., I) and the auxiliary (e.g., can) swap positions when forming questions:
I can draw a house –> What can I draw?
This is known as subject-auxiliary inversion. But often typically-developing children learning English as a first language fail to perform subject-auxiliary inversion (e.g., *What I can draw?). This is known as a subject-auxiliary inversion error, also called uninversion errors or non-inversion errors.
The aim of this research was to test different theoretical accounts of why children make these errors. The study took the form of a corpus-based study of longitudinal audio recordings of children and their caregivers, with the children aged from 1;8.22 to 2;0.25 at the beginning of the study, half boys and half girls. First, the research found a correlation between the frequency of multiword bigrams from uninverted structures in the linguistic input (e.g., what+I+can+draw) and the probability of children making the corresponding error when attempting the relevant question (e.g., What I can draw?). Second, the research found a negative correlation between the frequency of multiword bigrams from inverted structures (i.e., questions) in the linguistic input (e.g., What+can+I+draw) and children’s error rates.
These results are important because they challenge movement-based accounts of children’s question production, and suggest instead that children learn to ask questions by generalizing across the input. This is evidence for constructivist or usage-based accounts of language acquisition. They also constitute evidence for interventions for children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) for whom questions constitute a particular challenge.
The research was conducted by Stewart McCauley (now at the University of Iowa) along with Colin Bannard, Anna Theakston, Michelle Davis, Thea Cameron-Faulkner and Ben Ambridge, all at the University of Manchester and the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD). It was published in the journal Developmental Science.
McCauley, S. M., Bannard, C., Theakston, A., Davis, M., Cameron‐Faulkner, T., & Ambridge, B. (2021). Multiword units lead to errors of commission in children’s spontaneous production:“What corpus data can tell us?*”. Developmental Science, 24(6), e13125.