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Features disambiguation in the comprehension and production of children's complex structure

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Napoleon Katsos.


I show that production of object wh-questions poses a challenge to Italian-speaking children, as comprehension does, according to De Vincenzi et al. (1999). The apparent contrast with the claim that Italian-speaking children produce target-like wh-questions from the age of 2 and a half (Guasti, 1996) disappears once we identify the locus of the difficulty. In a nutshell, Italian-speaking children have troubles when they have to move an argument (the object) over another (the subject) that shares the same feature and this is reflected in the process of valuing the Agr features associated to the verb (see Guasti and Rizzi, 2002, Franck et al. 2006). Movement becomes unproblematic once the features of the two NPs are differentiated and this can be achieved in different ways. This proposal can be extended to account for the fact that in Italian object relative clauses with the OSV order (like in English) are easier to comprehend than those with OVS (with a postverbal subject) (Arosio, Guasti and Adani, in print); OVS object relative clauses are misunderstood and are taken as subject relative clauses.

Based on an elicited production study with 4-5 year old children and adults, I show that children produce less object questions in (1) than adults and less object questions than subject questions, in (2). Rather than object, they produce subject questions or irrelevant responses. In addition, the object questions that they produce take different forms. More frequently, they display the order S Wh V or occur with a null subjects and lastly they display the order WH V S. In addition, which questions are harder than who questions.
1. Chi rincorrono i cani? Who chase-3PL the dogs? (= Who are the dogs chasing?)
2. Chi rincorre i cani   Who chase-3SG the dogs?

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