Learning basic morphosyntax in languages with case marking: Polish, Finnish and Estonian

Many languages mark nouns with inflections that reflect the role of the noun in the sentence (its ‘case’). In English, only pronouns show case-marking (e.g. he, him, his to mark nominative, accusative and possessive, respectively). But children learning other languages may have to learn complex systems of case-marking which vary in the number of cases, the position of the inflection on the noun as well as whether the inflection also incorporates other features (such as person or plural marking (e.g. I vs he; me vs him; he vs. they). Theories about how children do this vary from the use of rules based on innate knowledge, to learning through the influences of frequency and phonological neighbourhood density (PND) (how many similar sounding nouns inflect in the same way), in what children hear.

In study 1, we tested 160 children in Poland, Finland and Estonia learning their native language. All three languages are morphologically rich and we tested the children’s ability to produce correctly inflected nouns in 5-6 cases in each language. The results showed the influence of surface form (noun plus a particular inflection) for Polish and Finnish and of PND for all three languages. The effect of PND was greater for forms with lower surface-form frequency, which are less available for direct retrieval from memory. Beyond these main effects a number of typological differences between the languages explained some of the error patterns made by the children. We concluded that these findings are difficult to reconcile with accounts that posit rules or linguistic abstractions and are most naturally explained by analogy-based connectionist or exemplar accounts.

Unlike English which has relatively fixed syntactic word order (e.g. The cat chased the mouse and The mouse chased the cat mean very different things), many languages have more flexible, pragmatic word order. In study 2, we investigated how children learning Polish, Finnish and Estonian mark ‘who did what to whom’ using case marking and word order. Children heard sentences with two nouns, one of which was coughed out and the other was marked for either subject or object case. They had to point to the picture that they thought matched the sentence. This paper is still in preparation.

Selected Outputs

Study 1

Granlund, S., Kolak, J., Vihman, V., Engelmann, F., Lieven, E., Pine, J., Theakston, A., & Ambridge, B. (2019). Language-general and language-specific phenomena in the acquisition of inflectional noun morphology: A cross-linguistic elicited-production study of Polish, Finnish and Estonian. Journal of Memory and Language, 107, 169-194.

Study 2

Kolak, J., Vihman, V-A., Granlund, S., Engelmann, F., Lieven, E.V.M., Pine, J.M., Theakston, A.L., & Ambridge, B. (2019) A cross-linguistic investigation of 3 to 5-year-old children’s ability to interpret transitive clauses with one case-marked argument. Paper presented at the 2019 Child Language Symposium, University of Sheffield

Virve Vihman, Felix Engelmann, Anna Theakston & Elena Lieven. (2016). Variability in the input: Acquisition of Differential Object Marking in Estonian. Paper presented at the International Workshop on The Acquisition of Differential Object Marking, France.  


Granlund, Sonia and Kolak, Joanna and Vihman, Virve and Engelmann, Felix and Lieven, Elena and Pine, Julian and Theakston, Anna and Ambridge, Ben (2021). International Centre for Language and Communicative Development: Language-general and Language-specific Phenomena in the Acquisition of Inflectional Noun Morphology: A Cross-linguistic Elicited-production Study of Polish, Finnish and Estonian, 2014-2020. [Data Collection]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Service. 10.5255/UKDA-SN-853897

Project Team: Ben Ambridge (Lead), Franklin Chang, Elena Lieven, Julian Pine, Joanna KolakAnna TheakstonSonia Granlund, Virve Vihman and Felix Engelmann

Start Date: March 2015

Duration: 3 years

(Work Package 13)