The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 10/27 — Veronica Boyce (MIT)

Speaker: Veronica Boyce, MIT (joint work with Athulya Aravind and Martin Hackl)
Title: Lexical and syntactic effects on auxiliary selection: Evidence from Child French
Date: Thursday, October 27
Time: 12:30pm-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Auxiliary selection in periphrastic constructions poses a challenge for the learner who must learn if her language has auxiliary selection and if so, how to draw the line between HAVE-selecting and BE-selecting verbs. We investigate children’s understanding of the various factors involved in auxiliary selection in French by conducting a large-scale corpus study of child productions of passé composé.

In adult French, a set of unaccusative verbs and reflexive clitic constructions with SE select BE. With the class of unaccusatives, children were largely adult-like, but sometimes over-extended HAVE to BE. Crucially, over-extension errors are produced at earlier ages, suggesting a stage in development where the child has yet to converge on the right generalizations about French. Once past this stage, the child consistently selects the right auxiliary, even for newly acquired verbs.

Reflexive clitic constructions show a different acquisition trajectory from the unaccusatives. With 3rd person reflexives (se), children are adult-like 100% of the time. However, children erroneously select the HAVE-auxiliary over half of the time with 1st person (me). The high accuracy with 3rd-person reflexives suggests that children can rapidly make an inductive inference about auxiliary selection with reflexive clitic constructions, generalizing the pattern to an abstract syntactic configuration. We suggest that at the heart of the 1st person errors is the pronominal paradigm in French, which shows syncretism between object clitics and reflexives in the 1st/2nd person, and discuss how the child errors might point us to the right way of thinking about the paradigm.