THE ACQUISITION OF SYNTAX
IN CHILDREN FROM 5 TO 10
This study deals with several aspects of the acquisition of syntactic structures in children between the ages of 5 and 10. It is concerned with general question of the extent to which children in this age group have achieved mastery of their native language, and explores areas of disparity between adult grammar and child grammar. Child has mastered the syntax of his native language by about age 5.
The differences between child grammar and adult grammar can be seen when begin to explore child comprehension of particular syntactic structures. Children understand the sentence, but they understand them wrongly. This is revealed about discrepancies between child grammars and adult grammar affords considerable insight into the processes of acquisition, and in addition, into the nature of the structures themselves.
From the observation of 5 years old children, most children have become amenable on questioning. Child of 5 or 10 may still not have mastered certain -perhaps surprisingly many- aspects of the structure of his language that the mature speaker take for granted and command quite naturally.
This study is studying about the stage of language learning in which children are at the border of adult competence. The sort of things that they do not know at this late stage, bear a close relation to the characteristics and complexities of the ultimate language system that they will one day command. An increased understanding of these complexities is currently developing among linguists and psycholinguists concerned with general questioned of the nature of language nad human cognitive capacities.
2. Theoretical Considerations of Linguistic Complexity
To characterize notions of linguistic complexity becomes the initial task involved in approaching a study of the child’s acquisition of syntactic structures after age 5. The natural assumption is that children acquire later those structures which are more complex. The procedures are:
a. To take up notions of complexity
b. To hypothesize on the basis of these notions which structures will tend to be acquired late
c. To proceed to investigate these structures in children’s grammar
The approach to the question of syntactic complexity is from the point of view of a listener performing the operation of understanding a sentence. The concentration here is the specific operation of determining the syntactic structure of the S (sentence). This study postulates that the difficulty of this interpretative task is increased by the presence of the following four conditions:
a. The true grammatical relations which hold among the words in a S are not expressed directly in its surface structure.
In order to understand a S, a listener must be able to determine the actual grammatical relations that hold among the words that make it up.
(1) John saw Mary
John is the subject of the S, and that Mary is the object of the verb. These relations are expressed directly in the surface structure of the S by the order of the words.
(2) John is eager to see
John is the subject of the S, eager is an adjective predicted to John, and that John as also the subject of the infinitival complement verb see. It is John who is eager.
(3) John is easy to see
Although John appears to be the subject in both cases, closer inspection reveals that (3) it is the superficial subject only. It is not John who is easy. The adjective easy is not predictive to John.
(4) To see John is easy
(5) To see john is eager
In (2) the true grammatical relations in the S are far more readily ascertained by an inspection of the surface structure than in (3).
b. The syntactic structure associated with a particular word is at variance with a general pattern in the language.
This is now will take up a set of constructions in which elements crucial to the understanding of the S are omitted from its surface structures, and must be supplied by the listener.
(6) John told Bill to leave
(7) John persuaded Bill to leave
(8) John ordered Bill to leave
In each of these sentences, the subject of the infinitival complement verb leave is not expressed, but must be filled in by the listener. The clearer form is stated as follow:
John wanted (Bill) to leave
NP1 V (NP2) to inf vb
John promised Bill to leave
There are very few such constructions in English. It seems to be a characteristic of the verb promise, as opposed to the majority of verbs which dominate complement. To approach the difference between promise and our other verbs in another way, we may consider the different categories of verbs which introduce indirect speech or quoted speech in the complement clause. Imperative is the result of indirect speech when it is transposed into direct speech.
John ordered Mary to move the car.
“Move the car”
Promise, however, does not have the characteristic. Promise is not in the nature of a command, and the indirect speech cannot be transposed into an imperative. Obviously when the direct speech is in the first person it cannot be imperative.
John promised Mary that he would pay his debts.
“I will pay my debts”
Promise differs in that its permits only in that latter possibility, the non imperative.
Another aspect of the verb promise which is discussed by Austin (1962). Austin distinguishes between ‘statement’ and ‘performative utterances’, pointing out that whereas many sentences that a speaker utters state a fact or report something, in other sentences the speaker is not just saying something about an action, but is actually performing the action by uttering the sentence.
c. A conflict exists between two of the potential syntactic structures associated with a particular verb.
(19) John promised Bill to shovel the driveway
(22)I asked him what to do
In both of these sentences the Minimal Distance Principle is violated and we have postulated that as a result they will be correctly interpreted by the child later than sentences (20) and (23)
(20) John told Bill to shovel the driveway
(23)I told him what to do
It is shown that (22) is considerable more complex than (19). The difference between these two constructions, lies in the nature of the verbs ask and promise.
Fodor, Garrett, and Bever (1968) have advanced the view that this information about the ‘lexical character’ of the verb is an important factor in sentential complexity. They consider that in interpreting a S, a listener must consider the lexical character of its main verb, and that in general, the greater the variety of deep structure configurations the lexicon associates with the main verb of a sentence, the more complicated the sentence should be.
d. Restrictions on a grammatical operation apply under certain limited conditions only.
Dealing with an aspect of the general question of pro nominalization, and the information used by the listener who must make decisions about the reference of pronouns in the sentences that he hears. The purpose in this part is to point out that complexities like Ross stated have been discussed in the literature, and have served as the motivation for exploring the question of pronominal reference in children’s grammar.
3. Experimental Design
3.1. Children in the Sample
The sample consisted of forty children, eight each from kindergarten through fourth grade. Interview was at Davis Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts, some children from widely varying socioeconomic background. The children’s ages ranged from 5 to 10 years. There were 22 boys and 18 girls in the sample.
3.2. Interview Procedures
The children were interviewed by the author over a three month period, from November 1967 to January 1968. The constructions presented in the following order:
1. ask/tell (15 minutes)
2. promise/tell (5 minutes)
3. easy to see (1 minute)
4. pro nominalization (10 minutes)
The ask/tell set of questions required the presence of a second child to serve as a conversational partner for the child being interviewed. These questions were presented first and the child who had just completed his interview was asked to remain during this first portion of the next interview. The younger children tended to come in unnaturally quiet and somewhat apprehensive about what was going to happen, and the presence of the classmate who had already been through it all was very reassuring. The older children were far more confident, but even with them it was helpful to have the second child present.
The second child left toward the end of the ask/tell question (during the third interview sequence), and the relatively short promise and easy to see questions were presented text.
The interviews were taped recorded for late transcription, and some notes were taken during the interviews. The experimenter kept note-taking to a minimum, marking down interesting observations when warranted and if it did not interrupt the course of the questioning.
3.3. Design of Test Sentences
The purpose was to test the child’s knowledge of syntactic structures by investigating his ability to interpret sentences exhibiting these structures. In order to judge his knowledge of syntactic structure, it is necessary to present this structure to him in as neutral a context as possible. That is, we must remove semantic and situational cues which provide him with clues about the sentence’s correct interpretation. In the absence of clues of this sort relating to factors other than structure, his interpretation will reflect his knowledge of the structure itself.
John is easy to see
This sentence was selected because the meanings of the words permit two analyses that make sense.
The book is hard to read
These steps are easy to climb
The meaning of the words in these two sentences does not permit any other analysis that makes sense. Books do not read and steps do not climb. It can be only that people read books and that people climb steps.
This, then, was the procedure: to select students that exhibit the test syntactic structures with no contextual or semantic clues to influence the child’s interpretations.
The construction are discussed here are (A) Easy to see; (B) Promise; (C) Ask/Tell; (D) Pro nominalization.
4.1. Easy to See
Initial setting up: Place on the table in front of the child a blind-folded doll.
1. Is this doll easy to see or hard to see?
2. Would you make her easy/hard to see?
The younger children in general answered incorrectly, and the older children answered correctly. The number of wrong answers dropped with increase in age. At the extremes, almost all 5 years olds answered incorrectly, and all the 9 years olds answered correctly. The 6s, 7s, and 8s were mixed.
Children who answered incorrectly:
When they asked “Is this doll easy to see or hard to see?” they answered “hard to see, because her eyes was covered so the doll is hard to see”. Then the interviewer asked them again “will you make her easy to see”, then they removed the blindfold and finally the said “now, she is easy to see”
Children who answered correctly:
When they asked “Is this doll easy to see or hard to see?” they answered “The doll is easy to see”. Then the interviewer asked the children again “would you make her hard to see?” then they answered “In the dark” or another answer “I put her under the table” and “Hard to see her eyes but the rest of her is easy to see”.
Initial setting up: place on the table in front of the child a book, and the figures of Donald Duck and Bozo.
(48) John promised Bill to shovel the driveway
The underlying subject of the complement verb shovel is John, not Bill.
(49) John told Bill to shovel the driveway
In which underlying subject of the complement verb shovel us Bill.
The experimenter hypnotized that children will assign the wrong subject in Ss such as (48) until such time as they learn this special structure associated with promise. The semantics of a word may exclude certain structures, as, for example, promise excludes as associated imperative. Every child tested knew the concept of promise and at least some of the syntactic structures associated with the word, but only half of the children knew the test structure. One quarter of the children showed no knowledge of it at all, and another quarter evidenced partial command. We see that the process of learning a word maybe a lengthy one, which the child may go through fairly slowly. He may acquire the concept of a word and some of its associated structures, and may wait several years before learning and additional associated structure, particularly if it is a problematic one.
Initial Setting Up: two children present. Place on the table in front of the children some pencils, a book, a doll, a box of play foods, crayons, coloring sheets, a tray, figures of Donald duck and Mickey Mouse, Bozo and Pluto Pup.
Test Construction: (C) John asked/told Bill what to do.
Nature of Complexity: Two conflicts exist between two of the potential syntactic structures associated with a particular verb.
This interview questioned the children about a variety of structures associated with the words ask and tell. The results are 5 years old and 6 years old, apparently were interpreting ask all the way through as if we had said tell. Their answered is indicated no awareness of the fact that in some cases they were instructed to ask, and in others to tell. They simply did not notice or even seem to hear the difference. This phenomenon of ‘mixing up’ ask and tell will be recognized as familiar by many parents and teachers of young children. In fact, the children are not, mixing up the two at this stage, but merely imposing a tell interpretation on both words. Under such circumstance it was clear that the distinction in complement subject assignment following ask and tell that we originally set out to test out to test was not being tested it all. The observation that many 5 years olds and 6 years olds respond to this situation by assigning a tell interpretation to all instructions of course interesting, but the question nevertheless remained of how to relate it to our proposed investigation of the MDP and its exception.
The children knowledge can be analyzed in five stages of development. All the children learned to handle the simple cases before the complex ones. A child who failed at cases 1 and 2 also failed at case 3, and a child who succeeded at 3 always succeeded at 1 and 2 as well. A child who failed case 3 might succeed at 1 and 2, but never the reverse.
4.3.1. Stage A. Failure: All Cases
8 Children: boys: 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, 5.3’, 7.6; girls: 5.1’, 5.3, and 7.1
Children in stage A process ask and tell alike for all construction, imposing a tell interpretation everywhere. The experimenter found this to be the rather than the exception for the 5 year olds.
4.3.2. Stage B. Success: Case 1; Failure: Cases 2, 3
2 children: boy: 6.9; girl: 6.6
The experimenter found two children who distinguish ask and tell for case 1, but not for case 2 or 3. That is can do the two simple cases of wh- clause, subject supplied and NP differently, succeeding with the former and failing with the latter.
4.3.3. Stage C. Success: Cases 1, 2; Failure Cases 3
9 Children: boys: 5.2’, 5.3”, 7.9, 8.5, 9.2; girls: 6.5, 6.5’, 9.7, 10.0
Beyond age 6 the experimenters begin to find children who succeed in cases 1 and 2, but who still fail to distinguish ask and tell for case 3. This is common stage and the children in it produce sequences.
4.3.4. Stage D. Success: Case 1, 2, (3); Wrong Subject: Case 3
6 Children: boys: 6.10, 8.4, 8.8; girls: 6.9’, 7.0, 8.7
For case 3 children ask a question, but they assign the wrong subject to the complement verb.
4.3.5. Stage E. Success: All Cases; Correct Subject: Case 3
14 Children: boys: 5.10, 6.7, 7.3, 8.2, 9.7’, 9.8, 9.9; girls: 7.0’, 7.2, 8.6, 8.8’, 9.1,
This is the final stage. In this stage, the processing of all the test construction was carried out in accordance with the rules of adult grammar.
4.3.6. Stage A. Failure: All Cases
8 Children: boys: 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, 5.3’, 7.6; girls: 5.1’, 5.3, and 7.1
Children in stage A are characterized by poor ask/tell differentiation for all cases, simple as well as complex. They respond alike to ask instruction and tell instructions, and do a poor job of correcting their errors when requested to reflect on and consider their responses.
4.3.7. Stage B. Success: Case 1; Failure: Case 2, 3
2 Children: boy: 6.9; girl: 6.6
The two children whom the experimenter has designated as being in stage B distinguish between two simple cases of wh- clause and NP, succeeding with the former and failing with the latter.
4.3.8. Stage C. Success: Cases 1, 2; Failure: Case 3
9 Children: boys: 5.2’, 5.3’’, 7.9, 8.5, 9.2; girls: 6.5, 6.5’, 9.7, 10.0
The children easily distinguish ask and tell in the simple cases. They answer quickly, with assurance, and know just what they are doing. They then proceed to fail entirely at case 3, telling straight through.
4.3.9. Stage D. Success: Cases 1, 2, (3); Wrong Subject: Case 3
6 Children: boys: 6.10, 8.4, 8.8; girls: 6.9’, 7.0, 8.7
In response to the instructions containing ask, they ask a question. However they assign the wrong subject to the complement verb. They assign a subject in accordance with the MDP, which give the partner instead of the child to whom the instruction is addressed.
4.3.10. Stage E. Success: All cases; Correct Subject: Case 3
14 Children: Boys: 5.10, 6.7, 7.3, 8.2, 9.7’, 9.7’’, 9.8, 9.9; girls: 7.0’, 7.2, 8.6,
8.8’, 9.1, 9.8’
The child was not asked simply to interpret a sentence, but rather he was required to carry out an instruction by saying something to his partner. This is the way to take up another aspect of the difficulty experienced by the children in their interpretation of ask.
Initial Setting Up: Place on the table in front of the child figures of Mickey Mouse and Pluto Pup.
Test construction: (D) Pronominalization
Nature of Complexity: Restriction to a grammatical operation applies under certain limited edition only.
In this interview the child‘s interpretation of pronominal reference in three different structures is tested. They are sentence type 1, type 2 and type 3. Sentence type 1 the pronoun must refer to someone else outside the sentence. Type 2 and type 3 it may refer either to the occurring NP or to someone else (unrestricted reference). The purpose is to determine whether the child knows that there is a nonidentity requirement for sentences of type 1, as constructed with 2 and 3 which have no such requirement. Five sentences of each type are presented here.
The interview procedures are; Mickey Mouse and Pluto Pup are placed before the child, had the child identify. Children are told that the experimenter going to tell them something about Mickey and Pluto. Then the experimenter gave him some examples for practice. The first few practice sentences contained no instances of pronominalization, and named only one figure. The children are also asked about the NP.
The result, during the preliminary questioning with neighborhood children, it is found that holding the sentence in mind and thinking about it abstractly was difficult to many children. Children really used the figures and many preferred to point to their choice, or pick up the figure, rather than answer with the figure’s name.
Normally, the pronominalization test was given last in the interview, after the other three constructions had been completed. Some of the kindergarteners appeared to tire, however, by the time the experimenter reached this point in the interview, and the experimenter thought it best for these children to postpone the pronominalization questioning until another day.
The children’s errors in this pronominalization interview are more closely related with age than were those in the other three interviews that the experimenter conducted. With only three exceptions (ages 6.10, 8.10, and 5.2), the age cutoff between correct and incorrect Rs is approximately 5.6. The rules for pronominal reference are qualitatively different. The older children enjoyed the task much more than the younger ones did. The younger ones reacted as if the whole thing was sort of pointless and a bit of an imposition. The younger children still were more bored with it than the younger one. The older ones were well aware that in some sentences the answer had to be one way, and that in other sentences they had choice. Some of the older children answered sometimes, for the unrestricted construction.
The performance of each child on all four tests is presented in Table 5.1 with the children listed by age. Table 5.2 presents the same data, with the children listed separately for each construction, again by age.
For ask and tell, there is a wide distribution of stages among the children in the example, indicating considerable variation in age of acquisition of these structures. Although the general pattern is one of gradual improvement with increase in age, the high degree of individual variation indicates a strong dependence of this acquisition on individual rate of development.
The next two constructions, promise and easy to see, show characteristics similar to each other and will be discussed together. Beyond a certain age all children know the construction. Prior to this age, the children are mixed. The dominant features, then, of the acquisition of promise and easy to see are uniform success in children from age 9 on and a potential learning period of three to four years prior to this age during which acquisition is subject to individual variations.
For pronominalization, the experimenter finds the simplest pattern of all. With very few exceptions, children above 5.6 in the sample know the construction and children below 5.6 do not. The most obvious distinction, namely that this construction is learned so much earlier than the others, is only part of its difference, and not the most interesting part.
The constructions may be characterized as follows:
1. Promise and easy to see: mixed period from age 5.6 to 9, success from age 9 on
2. Ask: mixed at all ages
3. Pronominalization: failure before age 5.6, success from 5.6 on
Chomsky, Carol. 1973. The acquisition of Syntax in Children from 5 to 10. England M.I.T. Press