The goal of this dissertation research is to investigate effects of information structure on word-order alternations as language develops, in both first language (L1) and second language (L2). Previous research has shown that adult native speakers tend to place given/old information before new information; this is called the "Given-before-New" principle. For example, in a situation where "the pie" is the topic of discussion, adult speakers are more likely to say "Sandy brought the pie to some friends" than "Sandy brought some friends the pie."

In L1 acquisition, some researchers have suggested that young children fail to comply with the Given-before-New principle because they are unable to distinguish what they know/believe from what others know/believe. This account, called the Theory of Mind (ToM) account, has not been tested experimentally. This dissertation project will investigate, for both English and Korean, whether children who show sensitivity to what others know/believe also obey the Given-before-New principle. In addition, this project will investigate, in both Korean-speaking learners of English and English-speaking learners of Korean, whether knowledge of the Given-before-New principle automatically transfers from L1 to L2.

Data will be collected via: (i) a novel "Oral Contextualized Preference task," in which participants listen to pairs of sentences following stories and choose their preference; (ii) an Oral Acceptability-Judgment task, in which participants listen to short dialogues between two characters and decide the acceptability of test sentences; (iii) a False-Belief task to assess children's mastery of ToM; and (iv) a Picture-Description task to measure L2 proficiency.

This is the first bidirectional study on word-order preference in association with information status, across different age groups using the same innovative methods, in both L1 and L2. It is also the first experimental study of the Given-before-New principle in Korean. The results should therefore be of immediate interest to scholars of English and Korean, language development, and language pedagogy. Another impact is the potential to extend a new experimental paradigm to other language domains. The project will enhance the infrastructure for international research, and will provide the student co-PI with extensive training in many aspects of language research.

Project Report

Our research project investigates whether first language (L1) and second language (L2) learners adhere to the Given?before?New Principle such that they tend to place a discourse?given entity prior to a discourse?new entity, focusing on the dative word?order alternations in English (Prepositional Dative (PD), i.e., [DO?IO], vs. Double Object Dative (DOD), i.e., [IO?DO]), and in Korean (canonical order [IO?DO] vs. scrambled order [DO?IO]). The specific research issues include (1) the (causal) relationship between knowledge of Theory of Mind (ToM)—the ability to attribute mental states to self and to others—and adherence to the Given?before?New Principle in L1 children and (2) the transferability of adherence to this principle in L2 children and L2 adults. In researching these issues, the project explores whether ToM is a prerequisite to the Given?before?New Principle in L1 children and whether L2 learners who adhere to the Given?before?New Principle in their L1 automatically adhere to it in their L2. We attempt to provide a unified, crosslinguistic account of (non)adherence to the Given?before?New Principle in L1 and L2 acquisition. The research includes five main experimental studies, each with a variety of tasks: (a) two novel Oral Contextualized Preference Tasks––one in English and one in Korean––each consisting of an NP Task and a Pronoun Task, which examine adherence to the Given?before?New Principle; (b) an English Acceptability Judgment Task (AJT), which tests L2 learners’ syntactic knowledge of the dative alternation; (c) two false?belief tasks, which measure children’s mastery of ToM; and (d) a picture?narration task, which assesses learners’ level of L2 proficiency. Study 1 (L1?English children) and Study 2 (L1?Korean children) test the causal relation between ToM and the Given?before?New Principle in L1 children. Data from our L1 children yield mixed results. For L1?English children, adherers and non?adherers are found in both [+ToM] children and [–ToM] children, which thus do not support the causal relation. In contrast, for L1?Korean children, adherence is observed in [+ToM] children only. However, we are hesitant to draw a conclusion regarding the causal link between ToM and adherence to the Given?before?New Principle because the sample sizes of [–ToM] in both the L1?English and L1?Korean children are so small. Study 3 (Korean adult L2 learners of English) and Study 4 (English adult L2 learners of Korean) investigate whether L2 adults who adhere to the Given?before?New Principle in their L1 automatically adhere it in their L2. The results show that intermediate?to?advanced L2ers show a strong syntactic bias toward the default—the PD in English and the canonical order in Korean, when the given referent is a lexical NP (e.g., the teacher, ke chinkwu ‘the friend’). Hence, we conclude that with a lexical NP as a given?referent, when the less basic, less frequent construction aligning with Given–New competes with the more basic, more frequent construction aligning with New–Given, intermediate?to?advanced L2 adults tend to choose the latter, i.e., the default. In contrast, when the given referent is a pronoun, intermediate?to?advanced L2?English adults are more likely to prefer Given–New over New–Given. Finally, Study 5 (Korean child L2 learners of English) examines adherence to the Given?before?New Principle in the L1 and L2 of individuals. Data from our L2 children yield a (curious) dissociation between L1 vs. L2 adherence to the principle. Yet, there are very few cases to confirm the dissociation, and so this needs to be investigated further. From a broad and practical perspective, our research has led to a better understanding of the Given?before?New Principle in L1 and L2 children and L1 and L2 adults. We have learned that, crosslinguistically, L1 adults overwhelmingly adhere to the Given?before?New Principle. We have also learned that, on the one hand, L2?adults show a syntactic bias toward the default when the given referent is a lexical NP, which wins over the Given?before?New Principle, but that on the other hand, their adherence to it increases with the higher topicality encoded in a pronoun. This informs us that L2 learners’ preference for Given–New is modulated by a lexical NP vs. a pronoun: A pronoun as a given?referent is stronger than a lexical NP as a given?referent.

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University of Hawaii
United States
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