LING 641, Spring 2015, Lab 2

Designing an experiment for children

Assigned Wednesday February 25th; due Friday March 13th.

In this lab you will design materials for an experiment on child sentence comprehension.

The goal is to try to construct a fair test of preschool-age children’s knowledge of constraints on question formation. The rationale for this is: (i) it serves as a model for a wide range of possible tests of adult and child learner’s linguistic abilities — the experiment design considerations that are relevant here are relevant to many other studies that you might construct; (ii) there may be good reasons to doubt the conclusions that have been drawn from previous studies on this topic, so if we can find a better design, then we can try to actually run the experiment.

English, like many other languages, allows wh-questions in which the wh-phrase and the verb that it is interpreted with are separated by one or more clauses. This is shown in (1-2) for questions involving adjunct/modifier wh-words like howwhen, or where.

1. How did John hurt his leg __?

2a. How did Mary hear that John hurt his leg __?
b. When did Bill say that Susie will arrive __?
c. Where did Emily tell somebody that she found the book __?

But there are restrictions on these long-distance questions. In particular, it is impossible in English (and in the vast majority of other languages) to form a direct wh-question in which the questioned phrase is associated with a verb/gap inside a relative clause. (3a) can be understood as a question about the location of the main clause event (‘talk to’) but not as a question about the location of the relative clause event (‘swim’). (3b) can be understood as a question about the location of the main clause event (‘drink the milk’) but not as a question about the location of the relative clause event (‘sneeze’). For this reason relative clauses are known as ‘islands’ for question formation, i.e., the wh-word cannot escape from the relative clause.

3a. *Where did Emily talk to [the girl that likes to swim __]
b. *How did [the boy that sneezed __] drink the milk?

De Villiers & Roeper (1995) argued, using a ‘Question after Story’ task and sentences like (3b) that preschool-age children systematically avoid interpretations of questions that would amount to extractions from a relative clause, i.e., they answer questions like (3b) as if they are questions about the manner of milk drinking. They argue that this avoidance is caused by children’s knowledge of a grammatical island constraint. However, as we have discussed in class, the design of the task could instead have caused the children to avoid the relative clause construal of the question because that question was not suitably licensed by the story context. This is what we hope to fix in this lab.

Your task: propose a design for a study that could provide a fair test of whether preschool-age children allow or disallow interpretations of wh-questions that involve extraction from a relative clause.

In order to do this, you will need to do the following:

(i) For one or more sample sentences, give a list of the circumstances that would need to hold in order for it to be natural to ask a question about the main clause event in a sentence that contains a relative clause.

(ii) For the same sample sentence(s), give a list of the circumstances that would need to hold in order for it to be natural to ask a question about the relative clause event.

(iii) In light of your answers to (i-ii), explain which of your requirements the de Villiers & Roeper (1995) sample story does and does not satisfy.

(iv) Next try to combine your conditions from (i) and (ii) to give a list of requirements that must be met in a scenario that simultaneously licenses a main clause and relative clause question. Can this set of requirements be satisfied in a single scenario, or do they contain contradictory requirements? Clearly explaining your reasoning is particularly important on this point.

(v) Now use your conclusions from (i-iv) to design a new study that tests whether children can interpret wh-questions as involving extraction from a relative clause. Provide sample materials for at least one sample story for each experimental condition (text is fine, no need for pictures or movies!) What experimental conditions would you want to include as controls? For example, is there a way of testing whether the island-violating meaning is suitably prominent/accessible in your context, independent of the island constraint? 

Using other studies as a guide, provide information on how many items you would want. Would you include filler trials – if so, why? Would you want to use a within-subjects design (all children see all conditions) or a between-subjects design (different groups of children tested in the different conditions)? Why? 

Some important notes:

a. There is no preconceived notion of what you will conclude in this lab. This is new research. As usual, we encourage you to work together on this; just write up your work yourself. 

b. Please do not just come up with a story and “see if it works”. It is really important to approach this task systematically, first focusing on the requirements that suitable stories must meet, and then trying to build a real story around those requirements. Similarly, in your write-up, do not just give a sample story without explanation. It would be much better if you could give an annotated story, which explains how the various story elements satisfy your requirements. For example, present the story in a two-column format, in which one column contains the story elements, and the second contains notes on what those elements achieve.

c. The specific choice of lexical items and wh-words is up to you. You are certainly not tied to using the wh-word how as de Villiers and Roeper (1995) did, nor are you tied to using predicates like ‘sneeze’ or ‘drink the milk’. Use whatever you think will make it easier to construct suitable narratives.

d. For purposes of this lab exercise, you can first assume that children are in unlimited supply, and that their attention span is infinite. But it may be worthwhile to address the question of whether your design is feasible given children’s attention span. It is rare for tasks of this kind to last for more than around 15-20 minutes.

e. We will discuss in class the conditions under which it is natural to ask a question about a relative clause. Notes on this will be added below.

f. The Question-after-Story (QaS) task that de Villiers and Roeper used has a different name than the Truth Value Judgment Task (TVJT) that is used in many other studies with preschool-age children, but the two tasks follow essentially the same logic. In the QaS task we are interested in which question interpretation a child chooses to answer, and we use that to try to draw inferences about the child’s grammar of questions. In the TVJT we are interested in which interpretation of a declarative statement a child chooses to judge as true or false, and we use that to try to draw inferences about the child’s grammar of declaratives. Therefore, we should be mindful of the same design considerations that go into a TVJT when designing a QaS task. For ideas on this see Conroy et al. (2009) and Crain & Thornton (1998) [ch 25, ch 26, ch 27] on pronoun interpretation, and Lidz & Musolino (2006) on quantifier scope interpretation.