The acquisition of tag questions

This project will study the development of tag questions. Tag questions are frequently used in British English to convey a wide range of pragmatic functions, for example as politeness devices concerned with facilitating continuing conversation, indicating uncertainty, error, or expressing disagreement (Tottie & Hoffman, 2006). Thus, learning to produce and comprehend tag questions is an important aspect of language learning, especially with respect to social functioning.

Tag Question Word Cloud

However, for the language learning child, tag questions pose a number of challenges. Syntactically, tags must agree with the matrix auxiliary form, often (but not always) take opposing polarity, and must occur with a pronoun (Sylvia can go to the park, can’t she?). Furthermore, variations in intonation and illocutionary force mean that the same tag can convey a range of pragmatic functions, for example to state the obvious (Well you’ll need your umbrella. It’s raining, isn’t it?) or to express a degree of doubt in one’s own belief (I might need my umbrella, it’s raining, isn’t it?).

Previous research has shown that children make a number of errors in their early use of tag questions, for example auxiliary and pronoun matching errors, and polarity errors (e.g. Wells, 1979; Richards, 1990; Berninger & Garvey, 1982). However, relatively little is known about how the language children hear relates to their acquisition of tags in terms of the frequency of both forms and functions. Samples of language analysed in previous studies are sparse or relate to only a small number of children. In these studies, we will analyse dense corpus data and complement this with experimental studies designed to probe children’s developing understanding of form-function mappings within the tag system. In addition, computational modelling will help to establish how the child’s acquisition of tag questions relates to their developing knowledge of other related syntactic constructions such as wh-questions and statements.

The outcomes of this research will:

  • enhance our understanding of the course of acquisition of a complex pragmatic system in typically developing children;
  • provide a benchmark against which language development in children with language impairments can be compared;
  • provide experimental methods that can be used to probe social understanding in typical and atypical populations.

Project Team: Anna Theakston (Lead), Thea Cameron-Faulkner, Franklin Chang and Elena Lieven

Start Date: September 2015

Duration: 3 years

(Work Package 9)