The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

BCS Cog Lunch 10/13 - Nadya Modyanova

Speaker: Nadya Modyanova, PhD, Simons Postdoctoral Fellow, BCS
Date: Tuesday, Oct 13, 12pm, 46-3015 (Note special location!)
Title: Semantic and Pragmatic Language Development in Typical Acquisition, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Williams Syndrome

This talk focuses on understanding the reasons for children’s overuse of definite article ‘the’, to refer to one of several objects in a context set, as opposed to the unique established referent. Competing theories argue the deficit is either in children’s semantic computational knowledge (of uniqueness/maximality), or in their pragmatic/social awareness/theory-of-mind development. Experiments in this dissertation focused on children’s comprehension and interpretation of the indefinite and definite determiners, as well as ‘that’, anaphors ‘another’ and ‘same’, and free relative clauses.

The results suggest that in typically developing (TD) children the late acquisition of determiner ‘the’ is due to the late maturation of the semantic principle of maximality. Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and with Williams syndrome (WS) either manifested an adult-like competence, an absence of manifestation of knowledge, or a pattern found in TD younger children (where ‘that’ is understood better than ‘the’ as referring to the salient unique referent) – indicating delay of development of the language faculty, but no deviance. This suggests that the observed deficits in ASD and WS pattern with those in TD, and hence are also semantic in nature.

Beyond posing an explanatory challenge to linguistic theories, the research comparing typical and atypical development sheds light on the mechanisms of language development and impairment, and provides endophenotypic descriptions of ASD and WS, which are crucial for elucidating not only genetics of neurodevelopmental disorders, but also the genetic basis of the human language faculty.