Understanding Pragmatic Language Development: Comparing Adults and Children

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The Ohio State University

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This study addresses the connection between children’s developing knowledge of prosody – specifically their use of pitch when producing language – and pragmatics – their use of language in plausible ways, to convey and comprehend meaning, whether spoken or unspoken. Previous studies on this topic show that adult comprehension of the quantifier ‘some’ is different when ‘some’ is produced with what we refer to as a “pitch accent” or sudden variation in pitch that indicates a change in meaning. While children have been shown to grasp this difference in meaning, previous work suggests that they attend to word duration and not pitch in an experiment (Thorward 2009) that compared phonetic variants of some. Further, it has been proposed (Snow 2006) that prosodic development parallels morphosyntactic development. In my project, I investigate two questions: 1) at what point do children come to have adult-like knowledge of the pragmatic-prosody interaction in their use of phonetic variants of the quantifier some? and 2) is there a relationship between morphosyntactic development and pitch accent perception? To answer these questions, I test a sample of typically-developing, monolingual English-speakers. The measure of prosodic and pragmatic knowledge is a video-recorded Truth Value Judgment Task (TVJT), which provides a measure of accuracy and a measure of language processing (reaction time). Children were also given a standardized test of language, which includes a measure of morphosyntactic development, which I compare to their interpretation accuracy and reaction time results from the TVJT. Results suggest that our school-aged children (5-8 year-olds) behave similarly to preschool children in not grasping the meaning of pitch accent, and there is so far no discernable relationship between morphosyntactic development and measures of prosody/pragmatics. However, our results show a tendency that suggests that the faster the reaction time with some, the better children do better at inflection.


This research was funded by two grants from the College of Arts & Sciences Undergraduate Research Office including the Undergraduate Research Scholarship and Research Scholar Award.


Scalar Implicature, Pragmatics, Language, Child, Development