Using word order for communicative ends

Variations in word order are often used for communicative purposes such as to highlight or downplay participants, (e.g.  I broke the vase vs. The vase broke); to highlight new or important information, (e.g. That book is mine vs. It’s mine, that book); and to relate events to each other in terms of their timing or causality (e.g. After you've had your dinner, finish your drawing, or We need a coat on because it's raining). In complex sentences containing multiple clauses, it is often possible to reverse the parts of the sentence, but the order of events may remain the same posing a challenge for the language learner (e.g. Because it’s raining, we need a coat on; Finish your drawing after you’ve had your dinner). In this project we are examining how children learn to understand and use word order and clause order to perform these sorts of functions. 

There are two parts to this project. In the first we are analysing the conversations of children speaking Polish, Finnish, German, English and a Tibeto-Burman language of East Nepal, Chintang, to see how they learn to perform these different discourse functions using the word order tools their different languages provide. We are using these corpus analyses to develop experiments to work out what governs children’s choices of particular word orders in language with more (Polish, Finnish) or less (English, German) flexible word orders. 

In the second part of the project, we are focussing on English children’s acquisition of multiclausal sentences encoding temporal and causal relations.  In both corpus studies and experimental work, we are exploring the factors that influence how children understand different complex sentences, and how comprehension might be supported by the wider communicative context. This work is complemented by crosslinguistic studies of English and German, looking at specific types of sentences that differ in interesting ways between the two languages.

These questions are very important because children’s ability to use language flexibly is central to their becoming more sophisticated speakers and to their literacy and wider educational achievements.  

Project Team Part 1: Elena Lieven (Lead), Ben Ambridge, Felix EngelmannSonia Granlund, Joanna KolakJulian PineGrzegorz Krajewski, Sabine Stoll, Marta Szreder and Anna Theakston

Project Team Part 2: Anna Theakston (Lead), Silke Brandt, Laura de Ruiter, Elena Lieven, Heather Lemen and Michael Tomasello.

Start Date: March 2015

Duration: 3.5 years

(Work Package 11)