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Types of evidence in language acquisition



Inference From Absence


Positive Evidence

Hear an adult use a form

But kids must produce sentences/words they've never heard before

Valuable because how else are you supposed to learn the irregular verbs in the first place?

Words that sound like this get a +ed - constrained knowledge


Negative Evidence

An adult tells child that a particular form is not allowed

Parents don't always correct a kid

Kids won't make every possible error


Inference From Absence

A child never hears an adult use a particularform

Limits on usefulness: there are lots of things that you are allowed to say that you have never heard - does not allow for novelty

Might be useful if you expect something but don't see it: a common verb never heard with -ed


No negative evidence problem

Kids don't usually hear negative reinforcement

Superset hypothesis


Superset Hypothesis

Child's language is a superset of the target language
Child's experience is a subset of the target language

Three circles:
What kids hears, Target language, Incorrect/Ocergeneralizations

Target language is "we broke it" and "we went", but kid also says
"we breaked it" and "we goed" - includes all of target language as
well as incorrect generalizations

Positive evidence alone is insufficient to correct the child's
hypothesis, because their language would then just be a tiny subset of the target (what they hear is a small subset of the language)

Positive evidence will add to incorrect generalizations superset

They must generalize
How do they correct that?

Negative evidence will decrease from incorrect generalizations superset, but
there's not enough

It has been claimed that since children do not hear enough negative
evidence, this problem cannot be solved by learning

Used to argue for an innate grammatical knowledge


Brown and Hanlon

Studied mothers' speech in transcripts of three children

The mothers corrected factual evidence and naughty words

However, most grammatical errors passed without comment

Not enough to solve the superset problem


Non-overt correction

Parents were more likely to repeat verbatim the kids' well formed
sentences than ill-formed sentences

Parents reformulate their children's error full utterances much
more than repeat their error-free utterances

Sometimes they reformulate to correct, but sometimes they add
words as well to request more information - how does the child
know which is correction?


Might positive evidence be enough?

The problem with positive evidence is that kids will never hear all of the word forms that are permitted

If they are able to arrive at the correct forms via phonological or semantic analogy, this might be enough


Construction Learning and the no negative evidence problem

• The problem: there are generalizations available (transitive construction).

How do kids learn when to use this generalization and when they cannot use this form?

Positive evidence: utterances with the transitive construction, corrections (after being told that you are wrong)

Negative evidence: being told that you cannot use that construction

Semantic verb classes solution

Verbs that have similar meaning display similar grammatical behaviors

But what about idioms and fixed phrases?


Semantic verb classes solution

Verbs that have similar meaning display similar grammatical behaviors

Children do not need to know how individual verbs behave. They just need to know how classes of verbs behave
R pushed S
R shoved S
R disappeared S*
R vanished S*


Do children actually use the semantic verb classes solution?

Brooks and Tomasello

Children taught novel words using the intransitive construction (the
ball meeked)

One set of verbs had meaning similar to verbs that occur in transitive
constructions (roll, bounce)

Another set of verbs had meaning similar to verbs that cannot occur
in transitive constructions (come, go)

An attempt was then made to elicit transitive uses of the verbs

4 year olds were more likely than 2 year olds to generalize the verbs
whose meaning was similar to other verbs that can be used transitively

So it seems like kids to engage in something like generalizing on the
basis on semantic categories - to constrain the generalization



Repeated exposure of the use of a verb in one construction leads children to infer that the verb cannot be used in other constructions


Do kids use entrenchment to figure out constructions?


5 year olds, 8 year olds, undergrads

Children presented with sentences containing argument structure
violations (he giggled her, I'm going to disappear it)

High and low frequency verbs

Provided acceptability judgements

Give them (seven) circles from happy to sad - judge "how right" -
really, really right to really, really wrong - kids will point or put a coin
on the circle

All three groups were more tolerant of violations for low frequency

Inference through absence

They only hear it in one way; since it's high frequency, you would
expect to hear the other construction if it's valid

This thing is predictable, so it's absence is conspicuous

No one has an umbrella, so it must not be raining

Supports entrenchment

If it's a high frequency verb, they assume the verb can only be used the
way they've heard it used



When children encounter a verb used with one construction with a
particular meaning, they infer that it cannot be used with other
constructions to produce the same meaning

If a child hears a verb with the periphrastic causative construction (she
made him cry, he made her giggle) then they infer that it cannot be used in a straight forward transitive construction

Mutual exclusivity principle

Child knows that only one construction will be used to produce a given


Do children use preemption?

What does this mean about the way they form generalizations?

Brooks and Tomasello

Children taught novel words using the intransitive construction, the ball

The experimenter would elicit transitive verb uses

Bang the cup on the table - the ball "is tamming" the table

In some case the experimenter demonstrated an alternative way to
describe the machine - he's making the ball "tam"

At age 4, children who were exposed to the alternative were less likely
to use the transitive construction

Supports preemption

If a kid has heard a verb being used one way, they assume it cannot be
used another way

Children can use positive evidence to form generalizations, and only the
correct generalization - don't need negative evidence or to be taught to
be able to infer these things