Title: Understanding Habitual Events: A Developmental Study with English- and Spanish-speaking children.
Lab (s) Name (s)
UTEP Language Acquisition Research Lab (LARL)
El Paso, Texas, USA; Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico
Project Initiated January 2008
GENERAL PROJECT DESCRIPTION
One of the most important concepts a child must acquire is the concept of time and of how the events comprising his/her experience are classified in terms of their temporal location. The child must learn to distinguish between particular events (for example, one particular visit to the zoo), continuous events (for example, an extended family trip) and habitual events.
Habitual events are particularly challenging, because the child has to be able to conjoin two different concepts: that of a particular event (e.g. going to bed) with the notion that this event is repeated periodically. Therefore, in comprehending habitual situations, not only the child’s understanding of time, but also his/her memory of non-present situations is involved. The role of memory is even more salient when asking about habitual actions in the past, such as “what did you use to do when you were a baby?”
The problem is further complicated for the child by the fact that each language encodes the concept of habitualness differently. For example, while both English and Spanish use imperfect aspect verbs (that is, simple present and simple past) to mark habitualness, the Spanish imperfect aspect can also be understood as ongoing activity, as shown in Table 1:
Table 1: Possible Interpretations for Imperfect Aspect Verbs in English and Spanish.
The difference in interpretation is shown in examples (1) and (2), where the symbol [*] marks an incorrect answer:
(1) a. What does John do? (habitual) b. He swims. (habitual) c. *He is swimming (ongoing, incorrect) (2) a. ¿Qué hace Juan? (habitual or ongoing) What does Juan do? b. Nada (habitual or ongoing) (He) swims c. Está nadando. (ongoing, incorrect if the question is about habitual activities) (He) is swimming
Therefore, when a Spanish-speaking child hears a question like the one in (2a), he/she has to decide if the question asks about habitual or ongoing activities. Due to this ambiguity, when the Imperfect question is understood as asking about ongoing activities, it can be answered with a Progressive construction (as well as with an Imperfect or Infinitive answer). But when the interpretation is habitual, only answers with Imperfect aspect or Infinitive answers are appropriate, as shown in (3).
(3) a. ¿Qué hacías cuando eras niña? What did you do when you were a child? b. Jugaba a las muñecas. I played with dolls. c. *Estaba jugando a las muñecas. I was playing with dolls. d. *Jugando a las muñecas. Playing with dolls e. Jugar a las muñecas. To play with dolls.
The ambiguity of Imperfect forms is a language-specific characteristic that children must learn. They also must understand when an Imperfect question is understood as habitual or not, and which kinds of answers are appropriate for each kind of interpretation. Previous research (Blume 2002) showed that monolingual Spanish-speaking children had problems in answering habitual questions, using answers such as (3c) and (3d), which are incorrect in the adult language.
 Blume, María (2002) Discourse-Morphosyntax Interface in Spanish Non-Finite Verbs: A Comparison between Adult and Child Grammars. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Cornell University.
PURPOSES OF THE PROJECT
The goal in this research project is to clarify why the children were producing the ungrammatical answers seen in Blume 2002. To find out what is causing the children’s problems, we will compare English and Spanish-speaking children. In English, Imperfect aspect is not ambiguous, so if the problems of the children studied in Blume (2002) were due to the ambiguity of Imperfect aspect in Spanish (c and d), English-speaking children should not show any problems with habitual questions. However, if the problem was caused by a misunderstanding of the concept of habitualness (a) or by memory problems (b) Spanish- and English-speaking children should behave similarly.
Why were the Spanish-speaking children in Blume (2002) producing ungrammatical answers?
Was it was a problem caused by their language or was it a problem caused by the conceptual complexity of habitual activities.
RATIONALE AND AGENDA
There are four reasons why children could give incorrect answers:
1. They did not understand the concept of a habitual activity.
2. They had problems remembering the activities I was asking about, since they were non-present activities.
3. Given the ambiguity of Imperfect aspect in Spanish, the children did not know if they were being asked about a habitual or an ongoing activity.
4. Given that both Imperfect and Progressive aspect have ongoing-activity interpretations in Spanish, children thought that both also had habitual interpretations and therefore answered a habitual question with a Progressive answer, unlike adults. If this is the case, children believe that Progressive and Imperfect are completely synonymous.
To find out what is causing the children’s problems, we will compare English and Spanish-speaking children.
In English, Imperfect aspect is not ambiguous, so if the problems of the children studied in Blume (2002) were due to the ambiguity of Imperfect aspect in Spanish (c and d), English-speaking children should not show any problems with habitual questions. However, if the problem was caused by a misunderstanding of the concept of habitualness (a) or by memory problems (b) Spanish- and English-speaking children should behave similarly.
Monolingual speakers of English and Spanish, ages 2 to 4 years; and monolingual or English and Spanish-dominant bilingual adults are tested. 20 children and 10 adults for each language.
Tasks for children:
o Elicited production.
o Preference Task (comprehension)
o Preference Task (grammaticality judgment)
o Additionally, their parents will be asked to answer a one-page questionnaire about their child’s language use.
Tasks for adults:
o Elicited production.
o Grammaticality judgment
o Answering a similar questionnaire.
Data is collected in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.
CURRENT STATUS OF PROJECT
Data Collection: We have collected all the English data, 20 children and 10 adults, and all the Spanish adult data (13 adults). We have finished collecting all the Spanish child data. We are still in the process of transcribing and coding all the data.
Graduate students: Brannon Bradford, Martha Domínguez, Félix Fernández, Cliff Jones,Marina Kalashnikova, Jennifer Mansour, Sabrina Mossman, Jenny Morales, Dan Morgan, Anthony Nelson, Jaime Ontiveros, Lance Williams, Martha Rayas,Gisela Simental,Liliana Barraza, Diana Diaz, Laura Mendoza. Undergraduate Students: Anna Bodie, Cyndra Granville, Abraham Jallad, Minerva Jáuregui, Melissa Lugo, Arlene Luévano, Cesar Olivas, Raquel Gonzalez, Maria Jimenez, Lilian Avila, Maresha Peterson, Monica Melendez, Monica Martinez, Erika Gonzalez.