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The mass-count distinction in Dutch-speaking children with specific language impairment

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      This study reports experimental data on the acquisition of the mass-count distinction by Dutch-speaking children with specific language impairment (SLI). While verbal morphosyntax is known to be impaired in SLI, nominal morphosyntax has received less attention. The mass-count distinction provides an interesting test ground: count can have a plural morpheme: bal-en (‘balls’), but mass cannot: * deeg-en (‘doughs’). Flexible nouns can easily occur in either mass or count syntax ( pizza/pizza-s). Finally, object-mass nouns (e.g. furniture) are syntactically mass, but quantify over individuals, and are hypothesized to have a lexical [+individual] feature ( Bale & Barner 2004). Typically developing (TD) Dutch-acquiring children become sensitive to the mass-count distinction around age 6 ( van Witteloostuijn 2013).

      Hypothesizing that the primary impairment of SLI is in morphosyntax, and not in lexical-semantics, we predict that Dutch-speaking children with SLI older than 6 have most problems with the interpretation of flexible nouns (relying solely on morphosyntax), some problems interpreting classical count and mass nouns (supported by convention/world knowledge), and least problems interpreting object–mass nouns (relying solely on their lexical [+individual] feature).

      Quantity judgments based on count and mass nouns were collected from 28 Dutch children with SLI aged between 6 and 14 years old and 28 individually age-matched TD children. Confirming our predictions, the children with SLI scored significantly lower than their TD controls on flexible nouns, and, albeit to a lesser extent, on classical nouns. This underscores the (nominal) morphological deficit in SLI. In contrast, no difference between groups was found on object-mass nouns.

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      Most cited references 23

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      Prevalence of Specific Language Impairment in Kindergarten Children

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        Specific language impairment as a period of extended optional infinitive.

        English-speaking children with specific language impairment (SLI) are known to have particular difficulty with the acquisition of grammatical morphemes that carry tense and agreement features, such as the past tense -ed and third-person singular present -s. In this study, an Extended Optional Infinitive (EOI) account of SLI is evaluated. In this account, -ed, -s, BE, and DO are regarded as finiteness markers. This model predicts that finiteness markers are omitted for an extended period of time for nonimpaired children, and that this period will be extended for a longer time in children with SLI. At the same time, it predicts that if finiteness markers are present, they will be used correctly. These predictions are tested in this study. Subjects were 18 5-year-old children with SLI with expressive and receptive language deficits and two comparison groups of children developing language normally: 22 CA-equivalent (5N) and 20 younger, MLU-equivalent children (3N). It was found that the children with SLI used nonfinite forms of lexical verbs, or omitted BE and DO, more frequently than children in the 5N and 3N groups. At the same time, like the normally developing children, when the children with SLI marked finiteness, they did so appropriately. Most strikingly, the SLI group was highly accurate in marking agreement on BE and DO forms. The findings are discussed in terms of the predictions of the EOI model, in comparison to other models of the grammatical limitations of children with SLI.
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          Ontological categories guide young children's inductions of word meaning: object terms and substance terms.

          Three experiments assessed the possibility, suggested by Quine (1960, 1969) among others, that the ontology underlying natural language is induced in the course of language learning, rather than constraining learning from the beginning. Specifically, we assessed whether the ontological distinction between objects and non-solid substances conditions projection of word meanings prior to the child's mastery of count/mass syntax. Experiments 1 and 2 contrasted unfamiliar objects with unfamiliar substances in a word-learning task. Two-year-old subjects' projection of the novel word to new objects respected the shape and number of the original referent. In contrast, their projection of new words for non-solid substances ignored shape and number. There were no effects of the child's knowledge of count/mass syntax, nor of the syntactic context in which the new word was presented. Experiment 3 revealed that children's natural biases in the absence of naming do not lead to the same pattern of results. We argue that these data militate against Quine's conjecture.

            Author and article information

            [1 ]Universiteit van Amsterdam, Spuistraat 134, 1012 VB Amsterdam, NL
            Glossa: a journal of general linguistics
            Ubiquity Press
            20 April 2018
            : 3
            : 1
            Copyright: © 2018 The Author(s)

            This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See

            Special collection: the interpretation of the mass-count distinction across languages and populations


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