The Development of Morpho-Syntactic Competence in Italian-Speaking Children: a Usage-Based Approach

Miorelli, Luca (2017) The Development of Morpho-Syntactic Competence in Italian-Speaking Children: a Usage-Based Approach. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.

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Usage-Based scholars (e.g. Lieven et al., 2009) have shown that children’s early grammar is characterisable as knowledge of lexically-specific patterns (kick KICKEE) learnt from previously encountered strings (kick it). Experimental research (e.g. Lewis, 2009) has shown that children younger than four years cannot use nonce verbs in constructions in which they have never experienced them. Productivity with nonce verbs slowly improves throughout the preschool years, as adultlike schemas (e.g. AGENT-PROCESS-PATIENT) gradually emerge in ontogeny (Tomasello, 2006b).

However, such results are overwhelmingly based on studies of English-speaking children and it is unclear how well they generalise to other languages. The research presented in this thesis enquired into whether a Usage-Based Approach could account for the acquisition of Italian.

A longitudinal study investigated whether the spontaneous production of an Italian-speaking two-year-old could be accounted for in terms of lexically-specific units instantiated in the concrete strings he had previously experienced. An experimental study tapped into the development of 2;02-to-5;0-year-old Italian-speakers’ productivity with past participles and the transitive construction using both a nonce verb and a familiar verb.

Results on syntactic development were consistent with previous findings regarding English-speaking children (Akhtar, 1999; Lieven et al., 2009). The overwhelming majority of the child’s spontaneous production (82%) could be derived from previously encountered lexically-specific patterns. In the experimental setting, children younger than four years could not produce adultlike transitive sentences with a nonce verb they had not experienced in that construction.

As for morphological productivity, even two-year-olds used the nonce verb productively. Such results are discussed in terms of how the co-occurrence of high type and token frequency that characterises the Italian morphology may facilitate form-function mapping.

Overall results are consistent with Usage-Based Models, suggesting that such approaches have cross-linguistic validity.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: Q100 Linguistics
R300 Italian studies
Department: Faculties > Arts, Design and Social Sciences > Humanities
University Services > Graduate School > Doctor of Philosophy
Depositing User: Paul Burns
Date Deposited: 11 Jul 2019 14:28
Last Modified: 20 Sep 2022 14:30

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