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Title: Understanding Certainty and Evidentiality in the Acquisition of English and Spanish

Major Contributors:

Lab(s) Name(s):

Project URL:

Project Coverage:


Project Date(s):

Major Contributors

Dr. Ellen Courtney, Cliff Jones, Jaime Ontiveros, Anthony Nelson, Lance Williams, UTEP

Lab (s) Name (s)

UTEP Language Acquisition and Linguistics Research Lab (LALRL)


Coverage (countries)

El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico


English and Spanish


3/14/09 to present


Understanding Certainty and Evidentiality in the Acquisition of English and Spanish: In a computerized forced-choice comprehension task, several linguistic forms relating to certainty and information source will be examined in both English and Spanish for the purposes of establishing norms for adult speakers, both native and non-native, and comparing these norms to the performance of children in different age groups.


To establish a picture of children’s comprehension of the linguistic forms used to communicate different degrees of certainty and qualities of evidence in both English and Spanish. By comparing the two languages and the different forms used to represent similar ideas, we hope to separate participants’ conceptual development from their linguistic competence.


What is the acquisitional order of the forms under scrutiny, and how closely is this order tied to conceptual development? Are adults more likely to trust reports of indirect evidence or hearsay? Will the performance of non-native learners differ significantly from native speakers, and if so, will these differences correspond in any interesting way to the performance of young children acquiring their first language?


In phase 1 of the project, we’ll be testing six groups of 16 adults: native monolingual English speakers, native monolingual Spanish speakers, native Spanish speakers proficient in English, native English speakers proficient in Spanish, native Spanish speakers with intermediate proficiency in English, and native English speakers with intermediate proficiency in Spanish. In phase 2, we’ll run the same test with monolingual English- and Spanish-speaking children in three age groups: 3 to 4, 5 to 6, and 7 to 8. In addition to charting the children’s development with respect to the forms and concepts being examined, we’ll also be comparing the 12 groups to one another looking for any interesting correspondences that may provide clues as to the relationship between first and second language acquisition.


After some basic information about the participant’s language proficiency has been obtained, he or she will be asked to identify a series of common objects and animals. These items will appear later in the experiment. Once the testing interface is set to the appropriate language and running in one of two modes (with forms contrasting in either degree of certainty or quality of evidence), the participant will see four randomly selected items appear on-screen along with two colored boxes. Then, a cartoon lizard holding a large sack will run up, take the items, and hide them in the two boxes in such a way that the participant will have no idea which items went into which boxes. Immediately after the objects have been hidden, the lizard will run away, and a cartoon dog and cat will appear on opposite sides of the screen. The researcher will then ask the animals where each item was hidden in turn, and they will give conflicting statements contrasting either in their level of certainty or their quality of evidence. The participant will be asked to locate each item in turn, implicitly giving an indication which of the two animals he or she believes, until all 42 contrasts (including 6 practice trials) have been made. The gender and speaking order of the animals, the color and position of the boxes, and the presentation order of all the contrast pairs will be counter-balanced to eliminate gender bias, color preference, and practice and fatigue effects. In Spanish, all object words are masculine in gender.


Adult testing is finished in each of the six language groups. We did not finish collecting all the second language speakers data due to the finding that the levels of linguistic competence of the participants between the two groups were not equivalent. Testing of English -speaking children is underway as well as statistical analysis.


Professor: Dr. Ellen Courtney Graduate students: Cliff Jones, Jaime Ontiveros, Brannon Bradford, Marina Kalashnikova, and Dan Morgan and Martha Rayas. Undergraduate students: Laura Chavez, Sue Helen Estrada, Abraham Jallad, and Harat Saucedo. Erika Gonzalez, Raquel Gonzalez and María Jimenez.


UTEP Linguistics Colloquium: Locating Hidden Objects: Understanding Certainty and Evidentiality in the Acquisition of English and Spanish April 2009



“Understanding Certainty and Evidentiality in the Acquisition of English and Spanish”