Influence of Discourse-Pragmatics on Child Argument Realization

Are children sensitive to discourse-pragmatics when they choose how to realize arguments in their speech? In this project, together with Mary Hughes (Boston University) and Barbora Skarabela (University of Edinburgh), we explore how two- and three-year-old speakers of English and Inuktitut attend to a variety of discourse-pragmatic factors when selecting referents in spontaneous speech. These two languages are interesting to compare because of their typological difference: English typically requires overt subjects and objects, while Inuktitut allows omission of both.
Referents can be expressed in speech in many forms including as lexical noun phrases (the boy), demonstratives (that), personal pronouns (him), and agreement markers (-s), as well as being omitted. Adults tend to select a form to fit the referent’s accessibility in the discourse-pragmatic context – a more informative form (lexical noun phrase, demonstrative) when the referent is less accessible (e.g., newly introduced to discourse, absent from physical context) and a less informative form (pronoun, omission) when the referent is more accessible (just mentioned in discourse, focus of joint attention).

In a series of studies, we investigate which factors children are sensitive to in their referential choices, which factors are more powerful in influencing referential choice, whether and how children are sensitive to the factors in combination, and how their sensitivity develops if at all. We also investigate how a discourse-pragmatic explanation for referent selection interacts with a nativist explanation that referential choice is influenced primarily by grammatical factors such as verb finiteness. This work has important implications for theories of language learning, theory of mind, and the interface between syntax and discourse in language development.
Representative Publications
Allen, S.E.M., Hughes, M.E. & Skarabela, B. (2015). The role of cognitive accessibility in children’s referential choice. In L. Serratrice & S.E.M. Allen (Eds.), The acquisition of reference (pp. 123-153). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Hughes, M. & Allen, S.E.M. (2015). The incremental effect of discourse-pragmatic sensitivity on referential choice in the acquisition of a first language. Lingua, 155, 43-61.
Hughes, M. & Allen, S.E.M. (2014). Competing motivations in children's omission of subjects? The interaction between verb finiteness and referent accessibility. In B. MacWhinney, A. Malchukov, & E. Moravcsik (Eds.), Competing motivations in grammar and usage (pp. 144-162). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hughes, M. & Allen, S.E.M. (2013). The effect of individual discourse-pragmatic features on subject omission in English. Journal of Pragmatics, 56, 15-31.
Skarabela, B., Allen, S.E.M. & Scott-Phillips, T.C. (2013). Joint attention helps explain why children omit new arguments. Journal of Pragmatics, 56, 5-14.
Allen, S.E.M. (2007). Interacting pragmatic influences on children’s argument realization. In M. Bowerman & P. Brown (Eds.), Crosslinguistic perspectives on argument structure: Implications for learnability (pp. 191-210). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Allen, S.E.M. & Schröder, H. (2003). Preferred argument structure in early Inuktitut spontaneous speech data. In J.W. Du Bois, L.E. Kumpf & W.J. Ashby (Eds), Preferred argument structure: Grammar as architecture for function (pp. 301-338).  Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Allen, S.E.M. (2000). A discourse-pragmatic explanation for argument representation in child Inuktitut. Linguistics, 38(3), 483-521.