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The influence of verb semantics on children’s acquisition of verbal inflections in Tamil

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In all languages there is a close relationship between the semantic properties of verbs and temporal-aspectual markings (Hickmann, 1995: 212). My study aims to test the influence of verb semantics on Tamil children’s acquisition of tense and aspect markers. Studies in English, French, Spanish and Italian in first language acquisition studies have shown that children associate past and perfective inflections with telic verbs and progressive and imperfective inflections with durative verbs (Shirai & Anderson, 1994:135). These findings support the aspect hypothesis which asserts that verb inflections in early interlanguage systems are predominantly used as markers of lexical aspect and that early inflections are in fact redundant in meaning with the inherent semantic features of the verbs they are associated with (Li Ping, 1990: 51, 57). But, although the empirical evidence from these language studies strongly support the aspect hypothesis, data from a range of non-European languages is urgently needed in order to strengthen the hypothesis’ claim. Tamil, one of the oldest Dravidian languages, would make an interesting study because it uses separate linguistic devices to code distinctions between tense and aspect. The fact that aspect marking is not obligatory in Tamil, but that the marking of tense is, also makes important predictions for the aspect hypothesis.

I have carried out three different experiments with Tamil children aged between 2;4 years and 4;8 years and they comprised of a production task, a comprehension task and an imitation task. The results have been evaluated against the performance of eight adult native speakers of Tamil who also participated in the same three experiments. The findings help to analyse the claims made by the aspect hypothesis and also show to what extent verb semantics influences Tamil children’s acquisition of temporal-aspectual inflections.

Bibliography Hickmann, M. (1995). ‘Discourse Organisation and the Development of Reference to Person, Space and Time’. In The Handbook of Child Language. Blackwell Publishers. Li Ping. (1990). Aspect and Aktionsart in Child Mandarin. PhD dissertation. Shirai, Y. & Anderson, R. (1994). Discourse Motivations for some Cognitive Acquisition Principles. Cambridge University Press.

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