What kinds of adjectives do preschoolers encounter in the input, and how do they process what they hear?
Catherine Davies (University of Leeds)
Wednesday 13th March 2019
Adjectives are a challenging and relatively late-developing word class. In this novel corpus analysis of British English, we measure three and four year-olds’ quantitative and qualitative exposure to adjectives across a range of interactive and socioeconomic contexts in order to: i) measure the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic variability of adjectives in child-directed speech (CDS); and ii) investigate how features of the input might scaffold adjective acquisition. Adjectives occurred more frequently in prenominal than in postnominal syntactic frames, though less familiar adjectives were more likely to appear postnominally. They also occurred much more frequently with a descriptive than a contrastive function, especially for less familiar adjectives. This pattern held across free play CDS, shared book reading CDS, and in children’s book texts. Our findings present a partial mismatch between the forms of adjectives found in real-world CDS and those forms that should be most developmentally useful, i.e. in postnominal frames and with a contrastive function. Results are discussed in light of their implications for sentence processing, clinical practice, and for models of adjective acquisition.