The acquisition of Wh-questions in English

Date of Completion

January 1991


Language, Linguistics




This study investigates children's acquisition of Wh-questions in English, with respect to Subject Auxiliary Inversion (SAI). It provides data on children's early and accurate acquisition of Wh-questions, and identifies a reliable experimental method to reveal such knowledge.^ Three experiments are reported, using the elicited production technique, which is argued to be the most appropriate to collect data on Wh-questions. Experiment 1 tests children's acquisition of SAI in main clause questions. The results show that young children (aged about 3 years), who were previously assumed to have incomplete knowledge of the structure, produced well formed main clause Wh-questions with inversion. Experiment 2 tests the use of SAI in embedded questions. The results show that children who use the SAI rule in main clause Wh-questions, do not overgeneralize the rule to embedded questions. Their embedded questions are correctly noninverted. Experiment 3 determines whether experimental methods affect the resulting data. Data are collected for each subject through different methods used in previous studies on Wh-questions. The methods used were elicited imitation, elicited production and spontaneous production. The data from spontaneous and elicited production converge. The imitation data do not converge with either spontaneous or elicited production data. Due to some concerns regarding the accurate representation of linguistic competence by imitation and spontaneous production studies, and since the elicited production task is assumed to overcome these problems, it is argued to be the preferred task.^ Some children from Experiments 1 and 3 are found to produce adjunct Wh-questions (such as those beginning with how, why and where) without inversion. To account for their data, a syntactic proposal (Tiedeman, 1989) is applied to the acquisition data (Tiedeman and Sarma, 1989). It is assumed that the Empty Category Principle (ECP) is a parameter, and that children's initial grammars have a restricted version of the parameter. Their ECP does not allow them to apply SAI in adjunct Wh-questions. It is proposed that on the basis of positive evidence for SAI in adjunct Wh-questions, and the presence of the "dummy" auxiliary do, children proceed to the adult setting of the parameter, and consequently, apply SAI in all Wh-questions. ^