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Auteur: Karen SMITH-LOCK

Co-Auteur(s): Stephen CRAIN, Macquarie University, Australia

How children with Specific Language Impairment interpret scope ambiguities

Abstract/Résumé: In English, negated conjunctions generate a 'not both' reading. So (1) is true if Ted ordered just pasta, or just sushi, or neither. By contrast, adult speakers of Mandarin Chinese assign the 'neither' reading to (2). (1) Ted didn't order both pasta and sushi. (2) Taide meiyou dian yidalimianshi he shousi. Ted not order pasta and sushi 'As for both pasta and sushi, Ted did not order them.' Across languages, then, negation assumes different scope relations when it combines (locally) with words for conjunction. The cross-linguistic variation can be attributed to a scope parameter. This study investigates how English-speaking with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) acquire this scope parameter. Children acquiring any language are expected to initially favour parameter values that make sentences true in the narrowest range of circumstances. This subset principle (Berwick, 1985; Pinker 1984) ensures that children have access to positive evidence if the local language favours the alternative value of a scope parameter. Because the 'neither' reading is true in a narrower range of circumstances than the 'not both' reading, children acquiring English-type languages are expected to initially assign the parameter value associated with Mandarin-type languages. This has been found to be the case in English-speaking 4 to 6-year-olds, who assigned the 'neither' interpretation to sentences like (1), whereas English-speaking adults assigned the 'not both' reading (Crain et al., 2011). If SLI is a circumscribed language impairment (Rice et al, 1995; van der Lely, 1998), then English speaking children with SLI may be expected to pattern like normally developing children in setting scope parameters. This study tested 16 children with SLI (6;5-7;8) and 13 typically developing (TD) children (6;3-7;0). Children were asked whether a puppet correctly described a scene in which an animal ate none, one, or two food items. The task contained four test sentences like (1), and four filler items, with the universal quantifier ('ate everything') or negation and an NPI ('didn't eat anything'). Twenty-two children assigned the 'neither' reading to statements like (1), 11 TD (85%) and 13 SLI (81%). Three children assigned the adult 'not both' reading, 1TD (8%) and 2 SLI (13%). Seven children either did not answer the filler questions correctly or did not respond consistently to test items, 4 SLI (25%) and 3 TD (23%). All but two of these children (1 SLI and 1 TD) completed the task successfully on second testing. Thus, all the children with SLI who could perform the task acquired scope relations in the same way as TD children, adhering to the subset principle.