Language Acquisition

1a. Locality & Variation

Constraints on movement are classic examples of hard-to-observe linguistic phenomena. Yet children somehow manage to master them, despite cross-language variation. Cross-language analyses of input corpora show that the direct evidence isn’t good; indirect learning is needed. [Chacón et al. 2014]

1b. Aspect

Russian children appear to make egregious errors in the semantics of aspect. But closer inspection reveals that they have mastered the (im)perfective distinction, but mistakenly apply it in the way that Dutch does. [Kazanina & Phillips (2010), Cognition]

2a. Parsing & Locality

When faced with ambiguous wh-questions, English and Japanese-speaking children show opposite interpretive biases. This is because in English the first verb is the main verb, but in Japanese the first verb is the most deeply embedded verb. [Omaki et al. 2014, Language Learning & Development]

2b. Anaphora

Children’s errors in interpretation of anaphora show striking parallels to findings from adult parsing. So children’s mistakes may reflect an immature parser rather than an underdeveloped grammar. [e.g., Conroy et al. 2009; Kazanina & Phillips 2001; Phillips & Ehrenhofer 2015]

1c. Scope

Scope alternations are obscure enough within a single language. It doesn’t help that they show cross-language variation and so must be learned. To make matters worse, preschoolers seem to show greater scope flexibility than their parents. So how do they recover? [Goro 2007; Goro et al. 2007]

1d. Argument Structure

How do children learn the syntactic possibilities associated with individual verbs? An attractive solution is that they rely on knowledge of the verbs’ meanings plus universal linking rules. But broad cross-language surveys suggest that the linking rules are not universal. (Kim et al. 1999; Phillips 2000)

2c. Parsing & Maturational Constraints

Children are more successful language learners than adults. And they’re also less proficient language processors. The “Less is More” hypothesis (Newport 1990) argues that these two facts are related. But how could it be that adding noise to the input improves learning outcomes? [Phillips & Ehrenhofer 2015]

2d. Morphosyntax

Young children’s speech production is full of morphosyntactic errors. But these errors show a systematic distribution, and they pattern differently across languages. The systematic variation provides important clues to the role of grammar in children’s unfolding speech production mechanisms. [Phillips 1995/2010; Phillips 2003]

Theme #1: Learning and Cross-language Variation

Successful language learners master many facts about their language that are hard to infer from their language experience. It can’t be that the knowledge is simply built-in, as the hard-to-observe facts show substantial cross-language variation. So how do learners achieve this? This should be one of the central challenges in language research, motivating combined efforts using comparative linguistics, developmental research, and computational models. Yet it has received too little attention in recent work. Comparative linguistics has uncovered fascinating variability, but rarely engages with learning problems. Developmental research has uncovered interesting new ways of studying learning, but rarely turns its attention to the harder learning problems. I am particularly attracted to learning problems involving cross-language variation in hard-to-observe properties.

Theme #2: Learning and Parsing

In order to learn from their language experience, children must be able to accurately analyze the words and sentences that they hear. If they mis-analyze the input, then they will struggle to learn successfully. This is a very real danger, as it is becoming increasingly clear that children’s immature parsing system leads them astray. Nevertheless children, who are less successful parsers than adults, learn more successfully than adults. How is this possible? Our studies have uncovered parallels between children’s offline biases and adults’ online biases. We are also interested in whether children’s errors reflect grammatical mis-analyses, or more fleeting failures of the parsing or production system.

Publications in Language Acquisition

including PhD dissertations supervised

Emily Atkinson Matthew W. Wagers, Jeffrey Lidz Colin Phillips Akira Omaki : Developing incrementality in filler-gap dependency processing. In: 2017, (submitted). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin; Ehrenhofer, Lara: The role of language processing in language acquisition. In: Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 5 (4), pp. 409-453, 2015, (target article with 17 commentaries & response). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin; Ehrenhofer, Lara: Learning obscure and obvious properties of languages. In: Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 5 (4), pp. 545-555, 2015, (response to 17 commentaries on target article "The role of language processing in language acquisition"). (Type: Journal Article | Links | BibTeX)
Chacón, Dustin Alfonso: Comparative psychosyntax. University of Maryland, 2015. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Pearson, Barbara Zurer; Lidz, Jeffrey; McKee, Cecile; McCullough, Elizabeth A; Moore, Leslie C; Phillips, Colin; Speer, Shari R; Wagner, Laura; Zimmer, Elly: Linguistics for everyone: Engaging a broader public for the scientific study of language. In: Proceedings of the 39th Boston University Conference on Language Development, Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA, 2015. (Type: Inproceedings | Links | BibTeX)
Omaki, Akira; White, Imogen Davidson; Goro, Takuya; Lidz, Jeffrey; Phillips, Colin: No fear of commitment: children's incremental interpretation in English and Japanese wh-questions. In: Language Learning and Development, 10 , pp. 206-233, 2014. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lewis, Shevaun: Pragmatic enrichment in language processing and development. University of Maryland, 2013. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: On the nature of island constraints. II: Language learning and innateness. In: Sprouse, Jon; Hornstein, Norbert (Ed.): Experimental syntax and island effects, pp. 132-157, Cambridge University Press, 2013. (Type: Incollection | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Individual variation and constraints on language learning. In: Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 2 (3), pp. 281-286, 2012. (Type: Journal Article | Links | BibTeX)
Omaki, Akira: Commitment and flexibility in the developing parser. University of Maryland, 2010. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Syntax at age two: cross-linguistic differences. In: Language Acquisition, 17 , pp. 70-120, 2010, (This is a republication of an article that first appeared in 1995 in MIT Working Papers in Linguistics.). (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Conroy, Anastasia; Takahashi, Eri; Lidz, Jeffrey; Phillips, Colin: Equal treatment for all antecedents: how children succeed with Principle B. In: Linguistic Inquiry, 45 , pp. 446-486, 2009. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Goro, Takuya: Language specific constraints on scope interpretation in first language acquisition. University of Maryland, 2007. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Kazanina, Nina; Phillips, Colin: A developmental perspective on the imperfective paradox. In: Cognition, 105 , pp. 65-102, 2007. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Lieberman, Moti; Aoshima, Sachiko; Phillips, Colin: Nativelike biases in generation of wh-questions by nonnative speakers of Japanese. In: Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 28 , pp. 423-448, 2006. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Three benchmarks for distributional approaches to natural language syntax. In: Zanuttini, Raffaella; Campos, Hector; Herburger, Elena; Portner, Paul (Ed.): Negation, Tense, and Clausal Architecture: Cross-linguistic Investigations, Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, 2006. (Type: Inproceedings | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Kazanina, Nina: The acquisition and processing of backwards anaphora. University of Maryland, 2005. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Electrophysiology in the study of developmental language impairments: Prospects and challenges for a top-down approach. In: Applied Psycholinguistics, 26 (01), pp. 79–96, 2005. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Linguistics and linking problems. In: Rice, Mabel; Warren, Steven (Ed.): Developmental Language Disorders: From Phenotypes to Etiologies, pp. 241-287, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, 2004. (Type: Incollection | Links | BibTeX)
Kazanina, Nina; Phillips, Colin: Temporal reference frames and the imperfective paradox. In: Garding, Gina; Tsujimura, Mimu (Ed.): WCCFL22: Proceedings of the 22nd West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, pp. 287-300, Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA, 2003. (Type: Inproceedings | Links | BibTeX)
Kazanina, Nina; Phillips, Colin: Russian children's knowledge of aspectual distinctions. In: Beachley, Barbara; Brown, Amanda; Conlin, Frances (Ed.): BUCLD27: Proceedings of the 27th annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, pp. 390-401, Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA, 2003. (Type: Inproceedings | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Levels of representation in the electrophysiology of speech perception. In: Cognitive Science, 25 , pp. 711-731, 2001. (Type: Journal Article | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Kazanina, Nina; Phillips, Colin: Coreference in child Russian: distinguishing syntactic and discourse constraints. In: Do, Anna; Domínguez, Laura; Johansen, Aimee (Ed.): BUCLD 25: Proceedings of the 25th annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, pp. 413-424, Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA, 2001. (Type: Inproceedings | Links | BibTeX)
Golinkoff, Roberta; Phillips, Colin: Surveying the field of language acquisition. In: Contemporary Psychology, 45 , pp. 607-609, 2000, ((Book review of Bhatia & Ritchie (1999), Handbook of Child Language Acquisition)). (Type: Journal Article | Links | BibTeX)
Kim, Meesook: A cross-linguistic perspective on the acquisition of locative verbs. University of Delaware, 1999. (Type: PhD Thesis | Abstract | Links | BibTeX)
Kim, Meesook; Landau, Barbara; Phillips, Colin: Cross-linguistic differences in children's syntax for locative verbs. In: Greenhill, Annabel; Littlefield, Heather; Tano, Cheryl (Ed.): BUCLD23: Proceedings of the 23rd annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, pp. 337-348, Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA, 1999. (Type: Inproceedings | Links | BibTeX)
Kim, Meesook; Phillips, Colin: Complex verb constructions in child Korean: overt markers of covert functional structure. In: Greenhill, Annabel; Hughes, Mary; Littlefield, Heather; Walsh, Hugh (Ed.): BUCLD22: Proceedings of the 22nd annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, pp. 430-441, Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA, 1998. (Type: Inproceedings | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Disagreement between adults and children. In: Mendikoetxea, Amaya; Uribe-Etxebarria, Myriam (Ed.): Theoretical Issues on the Morphology-Syntax Interface, pp. 359–394, ASJU, San Sebastian, 1998. (Type: Book Chapter | Links | BibTeX)
Phillips, Colin: Root infinitives are finite. In: Stringfellow, Andy; Cahana-Amitay, Dalia; Hughes, Elizabeth; Zukowski, Andrea (Ed.): BUCLD 20: Proceedings of the 20th annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, pp. 588-599, Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA, 1996. (Type: Inproceedings | Links | BibTeX)