The acquisition of argument structure

To understand language, children need to learn how to identify participants such as agents and patients in utterances. Languages differ enormously in how they mark these participants. Languages fall into two major groups with regard to how they mark argument structure. On the one hand there are languages such as English, German or Russian that mark the subject of an intransitive clause in the same way as they mark the subject of a transitive clause. On the other hand, there are languages such as Hindi, Dyirbal or the Mayan languages, to name but a few, which mark the subject of an intransitive clause with the same marker as they mark the object of a transitive clause, whereas the subject of a transitive clause gets a different marker, called ergative.

The question we investigate is whether children employ similar strategies in learning these two types of languages, or whether they approach the acquisition task from a language specific point of view. To investigate how children acquire languages with ergative structures we investigate the acquisition of ergative marking in a number of typologically different languages. The results of this research show that from early on children are sensitive to the structures exhibited in the languages they are exposed to rather then rely on general language-independent strategies.

The outcomes of these studies have appeared in an edited volume:

Bavin, Edith & Sabine Stoll (eds.). 2013. The acquisition of ergativity. Amsterdam: Benjamins.