Abstract Syntactic Knowledge or Limited-Scope Formulae: A Computational Study of Children’s Early Utterances

AbstractDo children’s early utterances reflect abstract syntactic knowledge or slot-filler formulae developed through word imitation? This study compares development of part-of-speech (POS) sequences with word sequences using language models (LMs) trained on mothers’ utterances (N=1,272,139) from CHILDES English corpora, in which POS tags are automatically assigned by MOR and POST programs (MacWhinney, 2000). Word-based and POS-based LM probabilities for children’s multi-word utterances in the Providence corpus (Börschinger et al., 2013, 15-36 months, Nchildren=6, Nutterances=50,717) were calculated as a function of age. Word-based LM probability of children’s multi-word utterances first increases with age and then levels off after 23 months. By contrast, POS-based probability remains high and stable across all ages. This suggests children have adult-like syntactic knowledge even at a very early age when their word sequences are still not adult-like. The pattern of results supports the abstract syntax view. Additional studies will use more accurate POS-taggers and larger datasets.

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