The Acquisition of English and Arabic Existential Constructions
Al-Kulaib, Emad M.
University of Kansas
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Abstract This study is an investigation of the acquisition of existential constructions (ECs) in English and in Spoken Arabic. It is the first of its kind in that it examines the acquisition of the pieces and the features that form ECs; namely, existential there , the copula, definiteness, and agreement for English and existential fii, definiteness, word order, and negation for Spoken Arabic. The children learning English and Arabic had difficulties producing adult-like ECs. However, the difficulties that the children learning Arabic had with ECs are different from the difficulties that the children learning English had with English ECs. An analysis the files of Eve (Brown, 1973), Nina (Suppes, 1973) and Peter (Bloom 1970), taken from the CHILDES database (MacWhinney & Snow, 1985) showed that English existentials are not acquired at the same time as deictic constructions (DCs); existential contexts appear later than deictic ones and are much less productive. The children had difficulties acquiring be in both constructions. The data shows that acquisition of be in existential constructions follows a different pattern of development than deictic be and auxiliary-be. Although the rate of provision and omission of be in both ECs and DCs is about the same, the use of be in existentials is not as frequent as be in deictic or as in auxiliary-be constructions. The earliest token of an English EC appeared at the age 1;10 although missing be. The earliest emergence of an EC with be appeared at 2;0. In contrast, the earliest emergence of a DC missing be appeared at 1;7 and with be appeared at 1;9. The components that form both existential and deictic constructions appear early but they are used deictically before they are used to express the existence of objects. The production data shows that the three children supplied subject-verb agreement correctly most of the time. An analysis of data taken from five acquisition studies on Spoken Arabic showed that Arabic ECs are not productive. The earliest emergence of an Arabic EC appeared at the age 2;1. The difficulties that children learning Arabic had arise from (i) failure in reanalyzing fii as an existential verb separate from the verbal negation marker ma-(), (ii) the definiteness constraints and (iii) word order constraints that are also observed in Construct States (CSs) and verbal predicates. Existential fii is first used as a routine with the verbal negation marker ma-(). No affirmative ECs (AECs) could be found in the data. No errors in the use of negation with ECs could be found. The children learning both languages treated the negation markers differently. The children learning English produced both NECs and AECs. In contrast, the children learning Arabic only produced NECs. Children learning English appear to observe definiteness constraints in their initial productions of ECs while children acquiring Arabic violate this constraint. However, there is the possibility that the English distinction between ECs and DCs obscures the difficulty that children have with this constraint in English.
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