Island Constraints: What is there for children to learn?

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This dissertation presents behavioral studies that target the early syntactic representations of wh-movement during infancy and early childhood. Previous studies show that by 20 months-old, infants represent wh-movement and use this knowledge to respond to wh-questions during language comprehension tasks (Gagliardi 2012; Gagliardi et al., 2016; Seidl et al., 2003). Studies probing the nature of early representations of wh-movement show that by around 4 years-old, children represent island constraints (e.g., de Villiers et al., 1990; de Villiers & Roeper, 1995a, 1995b; Fetters & Lidz, 2016; Goodluck et al., 1992). It remains unclear how knowledge of wh-movement develops. What is the source of this ‘empirical gap’ between the onset of knowledge of wh- movement, and the observation that children respect island constraints? One possibility is that knowledge of island constraints is a component of Universal Grammar (e.g., Chomsky 1965, 1986; Hornstein & Lightfoot 1981). In this case, the ‘empirical gap’ in the linguistic abilities of infants compared to young children isn’t indicative of their linguistic knowledge, but rather the difficulties with testing infants and toddlers on complex syntax. Another possibility is that knowledge of island constraints is acquired via experience (e.g., Pearl & Sprouse, 2013). In this case, the ‘empirical gap’ reflects a knowledge gap, and there’s no evidence for knowledge of island constraints during infancy because it has yet to be acquired. Experiment 1 shows that by 19 months-old, infants have knowledge of wh-movement, and use this knowledge during language comprehension. Results are consistent with recent work which shows that 18 month-olds, but not 17 month-olds, know that wh-phrases co-occur with gap positions in wh-object questions (Perkins & Lidz, 2021). Experiment 2 shows that 3 year-olds respect locality constraints on wh-movement in wh- questions, and Experiment 3 shows that adults behave as expected on this task. Experiments 4 and 5 test children and adults on locality constraints on wh- movement in relative clauses, but these results are inconclusive (likely due to difficulties with moving the task online). The results of Experiment 3 raises challenges for learning hypotheses of island constraints which emphasize the role of linguistic experience. Learning models which propose that linguistic experience is the key factor in the acquisition of island constraints must consider these behavioral results when estimating the amount of data that the learner needs to solve the acquisition problem. These behavioral results are consistent with the hypothesis that knowledge of island constraints is innate, but further work is needed to close the ‘empirical gap’ between the onset of knowledge of wh- movement and the onset of knowledge of island constraints.