LingLang Lunch (4/4/2018): Meghan Armstrong (UMass Amherst)

Meghan Armstrong is an Assistant Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her main line of research deals with intonational development. Her current work deals with how epistemic meaning is encoded intonationally. For more information, her website is here.

Children’s detection of epistemic strength distinctions through prosody and the lexicon

Children make great strides in their comprehension of strength distinctions for epistemic modal verbs between the ages of 4 and 6 (Papafragou, 1998). However, while strength distinctions like might/will are lexicalized, the epistemic strength of mid-scalar epistemic modal verbs can also be modulated prosodically allowing a speaker to either highlight that something is quite likely, or highlight that something is less likely. While prosody is extremely important for development during the first year, it has been shown that as children’s receptive vocabulary increases they begin to pay extra attention to lexical information, perhaps at the expense of prosody (Friend 2001). For mental state verbs like think/know, Moore, Harris & Patriquin (1993) found that 4- and 5-year-olds were more successful at using these verbs for inferring degree of certainty than they were at using prosody (rising vs. falling) with no lexical indicators of mental states. Here we ask whether a lexical advantage can also be found for the case of epistemic modal verbs.
In our task children saw, on a Powerpoint presentation, a set of twins and their mutual friend, who was having a birthday party. For each trial, children were told that the friend either wanted something (e.g. a football – positive valence) or did not want something (e.g. socks – negative valence). The friend was asking the twins whether or not they would give him/her that thing for his/her birthday. Each twin responded with pre-recorded epistemic modal expressions differing in strength. The might/will contrast was used for the lexical condition (e.g. I will/might give you a football), while in the prosody condition epistemic strength of the verb might was modulated by one of two intonational contours conveying stronger vs. weaker epistemic strength, along with pitch range differences (wide for stronger and compressed for weaker). Children had to decide which twin the friend would want to come to his/her birthday party, based on what each twin said. Sixty monolingual American English-speaking children, aged 3-7, participated. There were 12 trials with two blocks, one for positive valence and the other for negative, with one familiarization trial for each block. The results show that the youngest children in the study show an emerging ability to detect modal strength through lexical items but perform at chance levels for the prosodic condition. They get increasingly better at both conditions between the ages of 4 and 5, but with a clear advantage for the lexical condition. This advantage disappears by 6 years old, with 6- and 7-year-olds performing at ceiling. The findings echo prior studies on children’s detection of distinctions in modal strength, with detection of certainty through prosody lagging behind. Results suggest that prosodic meaning may take a “backseat” to lexical meaning in the preschool years, but this effect disappears by early school age. The findings also suggest that prosodic information can generate a pragmatic implicature (in this case the directionality of the meaning of the word might), which makes a child’s pragmatic development important for understanding their prosodic development. Implications for prosodic acquisition are discussed.