From lexical to abstract knowledge: The case of wh-questions

The aim of this project is to investigate the balance between lexically-specific and abstract syntactic knowledge, and, in particular, how the latter develops from the former. In order to do so, we will focus on the well-studied and relatively circumscribed domain of English wh-questions; a structure for which children frequently make errors (previous studies have observed error rates of 50% and above, for certain question types).

The first part of the project will use computational modelling to simulate the balance of lexical and abstract knowledge recorded in existing studies of children’s production data (Ambridge et al., 2006; Rowland, 2007).

The second part of the project will use elicited production to test the predictions about error patterns generated by the model with both typically-developing children (aged 3-4 & 5-6 years) and children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI). There is already good evidence that children with SLI show a particular deficit in wh-question production (van der Lely & Battell, 2003). Focusing on differences in the patterning of correct use and error between children with SLI and typically developing children will allow us to draw inferences about the nature of this deficit, and whether it can be simulated by creating a stronger bias towards exemplar-based learning in the SLI model (Hsu & Bishop, 2010).

An associated PhD studentship (supervised by Caroline Rowland at the University of Liverpool) will evaluate two current theories of syntax acquisition by examining the relationship between syntactic representations and the lexicon at 3 different points in development. 

Project Team: Ben Ambridge (Lead), Franklin Chang, Alison Gummery, Stewart McCauley, Caroline Rowland and Anna Theakston

Start Date: September 2016

Duration: 3 years

(Work Package 7)