At the Child Language Lab, we investigate how children learn what words and sentences mean. Our primary research areas are described here.
1. Project on Modals: How do children learn to talk about what is possible or impossible?
Most of PI Ailís Cournane‘s research investigates how children learn the modal words of their language. Modal words, like might, must, maybe or can, allow us to express ourselves when we talk about possibilities or requirements. You probably never heard of “modals” in high school or when learning a foreign language, even though we use them all the time and all languages have them!
For example, we use modals when we make inferences about other people (She must be hungry, He’s probably sleeping at this hour, …), future possibilities (They might win!, It’s going to fall, …), and impossible or hypothetical states (If pigs could fly, I wish I were better at speaking Spanish…). Think about the word maybe. Maybe. It is a deceptively simple word. We’re so familiar with it that it’s easy to take for granted that humans can use maybe to express thoughts as abstract as the possibility of something being true or not (like whether it will rain tomorrow, whether we’ll decide to go to the museum, or whether the dog ate the baby’s food).
Modal words have particularly complicated and abstract meanings – how do children learn them? Children cannot see (or hear, touch, taste…) the meaning of must or probably, unlike for a word like dog or hug. As a parent, you can’t show your child what probably or should means. And, in many languages, including English, modals are extra hard because they are polysemous (many-meaning); one modal word may express several distinct meanings. For example, we all know this old joke based on the multiple meanings of modal can:
A. “Can I go to the restroom?”
B. “Yes, you’re able…but you’re not allowed.”
The response plays on the fact that can has more than one distinct abstract meaning, one of ability and one of permission. Yet, despite this complexity, toddlers start understanding and using modals like maybe from around age 2. We want to know more about how they accomplish this amazing feat and eventually become mature language users! You can help by participating in our language acquisition studies.
PI Ailís Cournane collaborates with PI Valentine Hacquard at the University of Maryland (third from left in the photo). Please visit our project website, Acquiring the Language of Possibility
2. Project on Language Change: Do children learning their first language contribute to how languages change over time? If so, how does this happen?
Another major area of PI Ailís Cournane’s research involves exploring the hypothesis that children learning their first language (or languages, in the case of multilingual kids) contribute to how languages change over time. We know that all languages are always changing (sometimes people don’t like this, but it remains a fact! Read this for more info from linguists on language change). This is why no generation sounds the same as the one before them, and why Shakespeare’s English varies widely from the kind of English spoken today – so much so that it is hard to understand without explicit training in Early Modern English.
Why do languages change? There are likely many reasons, having to do with the social and psychological nature of language. One proposal suggests that children’s errors – those adorable systematic things kids do in their language that are not in the language of adults and older children they learn from – may sometimes spread to other speakers and become the changes we see in language.
For an example of a systematic non-adult pattern in child language, consider how children sometimes use regular past-tense (-ed) on verbs that are irregular: “eated” instead of “ate”, “goed” instead of “went”, “drinked” instead of “drank”…. We think these kinds of things are adorable, but don’t often think about how they also show that the child is learning an abstract, generalized system – these so-called errors show that the child has learned how to make past-tense on any verb at all! Just add the past-marker “-ed”.
We focus on syntactic (=sentence structure, grammar) and semantic (=meaning) changes that child language may contribute to. See this book chapter by Ailís for further information and theoretical argumentation.