Does caregiver input influence children’s acquisition of modality?

This work was presented at the 2019 Child Language Symposium, Sheffield, UK. 


Modal verbs such as can, must, and may can be used by a speaker for an epistemic purpose to reflect their level of certainty towards a proposition (e.g. “it must be in the blue box”) or to express deontic meanings such as obligation or permission (e.g. “you must go to bed now”) (Papafragou, 2002). It is important that children learn how to use and comprehend these terms effectively to understand others’ beliefs and to develop the pragmatic skills necessary to use these terms as politeness strategies in speech (e.g. would you like to open the window?). Modal verbs are also a complex aspect of language in regards to form-function mappings since the same form, e.g. can, may be associated with more than one meaning (i.e. ability, permission, suggestion). Acquisition of modal verbs is therefore a difficult task for the language learner. Despite this, limited research has focused on young children’s production of these forms (Fletcher, 1985) and there has been even more limited focus on caregiver input and the modal verbs children are exposed to. To investigate the role of the input in children’s acquisition of modals, we examined the properties of modal use addressed to two young children between 3-5 years of age using dense naturalistic input samples. The modals can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will and would were extracted and analysed according to their frequency and their associated meanings. The results illustrate some consistent patterns of use whereby certain forms typically occur with only one or two meanings, e.g. might-epistemic, but also a high degree of complexity for other forms, which take a wide range of different meanings, e.g. could expressed epistemic, ability, permission, suggestion and obligation meanings. Strong positive correlations were found between the frequency of use of modal forms within each parent-child dyad, particularly at 4 years of age, but also of specific form-meaning mappings with those modals. Parents were significantly more likely to use modals as epistemic markers than their children, though each child showed a significant increase in their use of modals with epistemic meaning during the 3 to 4 age period, which may be tied to the development of Theory of Mind (Papafragou, 2002). Preliminary results suggest that the number of meanings associated with a modal form in the input, and their distribution, affect the order of acquisition. These findings will be discussed in the context of usage-based approaches to acquisition.


Fletcher, P. (1985). A Child’s Learning of English. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher Ltd.

Papafragou, A. (2002). Modality and theory of mind: Perspectives from language development and autism. In S. Barbiers, F. Beukema, & W. van der Wurff (Eds.), Modality and its Interaction with the Verbal System (pp. 185-205). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Citation Information

Bell, K., Brandt, S., Lieven, E. & Theakston, A. (2019). Does caregiver input influence children’s acquisition of modality?. Poster presented at the Child Language Symposium, Sheffield, UK.