For best experience please turn on javascript and use a modern browser!
You are using a browser that is no longer supported by Microsoft. Please upgrade your browser. The site may not present itself correctly if you continue browsing.

Petra Schulz, Professor for German as a second language at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main and NIAS-Lorentz Theme Group Fellow, is the guest speaker at this ACLC seminar. She will talk about "How do children acquire exhaustivity in wh-questions? A comparison across languages and acquisition types".

Event details of ACLC Seminar | Petra Schulz (Goethe-University Frankfurt)
Date 21 January 2022
Time 16:15 -17:30


How do children acquire exhaustivity in wh-questions? A comparison across languages and acquisition types


In this talk I discuss how the exhaustivity property of single wh-questions like Who is sitting? and of multiple wh-questions like Who is sitting where? and Who is giving what to whom? develops in children.

I will first address the question of whether–despite the well-known syntactic and lexical-morphological variation in wh-question formation across languages (e.g., Bošković, 2003; Dayal, 2005, 2017; Grohmann, 2003; Hagstrom, 2003)–the interpretation of exhaustive wh-questions follows a universal acquisition pattern. Drawing on experimental comprehension data across 19 languages, coming out of two EU projects (COST Action A33, COST Action IS0804), I will show that acquisition of exhaustive wh-questions is cross-linguistically robust. Syntactic and lexical-morphological variation in wh-question across languages minimally affected performance patterns in some languages and did so without altering the acquisition path: in typically developing (TD) monolingual children, mastery of single wh-questions occurs around age 5 and systematically precedes mastery of multiple wh-questions. Notably, children acquiring German as an early second language (age of onset around 3 years), follow the same acquisition path, with a delay of about 1 to 2 years.

Second, I will demonstrate that exhaustivity in single and especially in multiple wh-questions may constitute a persistent difficulty for children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), across different languages. Children with DLD follow the same acquisition path as their TD peers, some children Attributing exhaustivity to universally exhausting the question domain, I will argue that (at least some) children with DLD do not possess this property. The difficulties with exhaustivity found in children with DLD may be related to general problems with quantification and may indicate a semantic deficit (e.g., Schulz, 2010; Hamann, 2015).

Our study has implications for semantic theories of wh-questions and for semantics in acquisition: our data suggests that the mention-all reading in single and in multiple wh-questions is derived by the same ‘exhaustivity’ feature, providing novel support for semantic ambiguity accounts of single wh-questions and against pragmatic accounts (see e.g., the discussion in Xiang 2016, 2020). Moreover, the little variation we found in the acquisition of exhaustive wh-questions across different languages and acquisition types strengthens the general assumption that well-formedness conditions on semantic representations are universal (see Tsimpli 2014, Schulz & Grimm 2019).

About the ACLC seminar series

The ACLC seminar series is a two weekly lecture series organized by the ACLC, research school for linguistics of the Faculty of Humanities.