General description

“The loss of inflectional distinctions and the language contact hypothesis have often been discussed in the literature, but have never been  the subject of extensive and integrated research. This is probably due to the need for a complex, multidisciplinary approach. Such a research programme would have to combine theoretical linguistics, diachronic linguistics, dialectology, first language acquisition and second language acquisition.”(The original Variflex proposal)

What are the factors that cause deflection? In order to answer this question, the Meertens Institute (KNAW) and the Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication (UvA) have started a research-program called Variation in Inflection, or simply Variflex. Two types of factors may be relevant: internal factors related to the linguistic system and external, sociolinguistic factors. Typological variation (including dialect differences) and variation observed in the development of monolingual children are telling with regard to the boundaries set by our linguistic system. Typological variation and variation in L2 acquisition provide information with regard to external factors.

Thus, a second question addressed in the Variflex program is: What are the boundaries of variation in inflection? Empirical data suggest that the variation space of inflectional morphology is huge. Even within one language system there are various paradigms, dialects differ in inflectional contrasts and variation surfaces in various stages in the process of the acquisition of inflection. The amount of observed variation in inflectional morphology (at the interface of morphology and syntax) contrasts strikingly with other observed variation such as word order phenomena (syntax proper). Typological comparisons suggest that there are natural classes of inflectional features that are hierarchically organized, patterns of syncretism within a language suggest metaparadigmatic structure, the “errors” that children make seem pre-determined and, diachronically, not every possible change to inflectional paradigms has actually taken place.

    To determine the variation space of agreement inflection in Dutch Variflex takes a multidisciplinary approach that focuses on dialect variation, L1 acquisition, L2 acquisition and language change. The overall research question of the program is: Is deflection the effect of language contact, or to be more specific, the effect of imperfect second language acquisition that characterizes language contact situations, given that the output of this group of learners forms the input of a new group of first language acquirers?

    Variflex consists of three subprojects. Project 1 concentrates on geographical variation of inflection in Dutch. In Project 2 the variation of inflection within a developing Dutch (L1) grammar will be investigated. Results from the second project will be compared to the outcome of Project 3, which is on L2 acquisition of Dutch. Findings from the various subprojects will be integrated in a fourth project (the overall aim) on deflection. BISLI - an extension of Variflex - investigates variation in inflection in bilingual (supposedly) language-impaired children (BISLI). Additionally, two closely related projects on deflexion and bilingualism are carried out at the University of Amsterdam/ACLC (related projects).   


Project 1: Geographic variation in inflection - Drs. Alies MacLean (Meertens Instituut)

Within the Dutch area a great deal of variation exists in the presence and properties of verbal and adjectival inflection. In the first phase of this project a detailed description of the variation will be provided that is based on work that has been carried out in the context of the morphological and syntactic atlas of Dutch dialects (MAND and SAND). One the hypotheses that will be tested is that verbal and adjectival inflection pattern alike. Related to this hypothesis is the question which morphosyntactic features are relevant within the Dutch inflectional system and how this system is organized. Although it is expected that the variation is not random, it is not clear a priori that the actual patterns of variation that we find can be predicted by general theoretical principles. Finally, this project considers the language contact hypothesis. Part of the geographic variation is determined by 'accomodation'. In this project the interaction between internal factors (the amount of variation as a consequence of the linguistic system) and external factors (the amount of variation as the result of language contact cq. accomodation) will be investigated.

Project 2: First language acquisition of inflection - Drs. Daniela Polišenská (University of Amsterdam)

Much previous research has shown that Dutch children are able to distinguish between finite verbs and infinitives at a very early age. However, there is hardly any work done on the properties of finite verbal inflection in Dutch. In this project, longitudinal and cross-sectional data on Dutch child language will be collected in order to fill this empirical gap. Patterns of verbal inflection will be compared to adjectival inflection. A comparison between the two may shed a light on properties of inflectional defaults. This, in turn, may lead to new insights with respect to the mental representation of inflectional system. It will furthermore be investigated whether or not the acquisition of verbal inflection is correlated with the acquisition of verb placement; theories based on typological data predict that knowledge of agreement inflection necessarily precedes knowledge of verb movement in acquisition, but there are indications that actual acquisition data do not confirm this prediction.

Project 3: Second language acquisition of inflection - Dr. Elma Blom (University of Amsterdam)

The aim of the project is to disentangle effects of age of arrival and transfer on inflection in L2 Dutch. The following empirical question will be answered by means of an experiment: Are there qualitative differences between the errors in verbal and adjectival inflection in child and adult learners of Dutch? Given earlier research, it is expected that the errors of adult learners are less systematic and more probabilistic than the errors of child learners. The results of experiments on L2 acquisition of inflection may provide an answer to one of the central hypotheses of Variflex, which states that language contact is a determining factor in the process of deflexion in Dutch. A second central theme concerns the correlation between properties of verbal inflection and syntax that has been suggested on the basis of typological research. The observed correlation has inspired linguists who proposed theoretical explanations. These theories predict that the typological correlations are reflected in the process of language acquisition. More specifically, it is expected that transfer of and critical period effects in morphological and syntactic properties go hand-in-hand. Experiments will be carried out with child and adult learners of Dutch from L1 backgrounds that differ significantly from Dutch (Turkish, Berber/Tarifit, Chinese). In Projects 2 and 3 comparable experiments will be undertaken, allowing for an additional comparison that serves as a control, that is, with children that acquire Dutch as their first language.


Disentangling Bilingualism and SLI (BISLI) 

Bilingual children with language problems create a challenge for the clinical practice. Delays in the L2 development of these children may be caused by either poor learning of the second language or by a specific language impairment (SLI) that by definition also affects their learning of L1. Diagnostic criteria to disentangle the potential causes are lacking to date. A systematic study of the two factors and their interaction could provide an empirical basis for the development of such criteria.The language acquisition of bilingual SLI children is not just a clinical issue. This population also forms an ideal testing ground for theoretical issues in linguistic research. Because of their slower rate of acquisition, the SLI population typically provides a more detailed window on stages in language development. Apart from the empirical motivation, the bilingual SLI population has a methodological advantage. There is a common profile for SLI. Yet, the impairment manifests itself differently across languages and cross-linguistic comparisons are needed for a better understanding of SLI. In spite of all generalizations, SLI children remain heterogeneous within one language: bilingual SLI children make valid cross-linguistic comparisons possible by comparing two languages within one and the same subject.The project focuses on Turkish-Dutch bilingual children. The linguistic focus is on inflection in the IP/DP domains, and phenomena related to inflection. The expected differences between effects of SLI and transfer enable us to explore the respective influence of language impairment and the bilingual situation. Clear typological contrasts between L1 and L2 are helpful in teasing apart language-specific and impairment-induced influences. The present project has a natural connection to the NWO ‘Variation in Inflection’ project (360-70-110); a common data set can be accessed for use in both projects and the focus will be on a similar subject matter. (Summary from the original BISLI proposal)

Related PhD-projects, University of Amsterdam/ACLC:

Flexie en de tweede persoon: grenzen aan variatie - Suzanne Aalberse

De ontwikkeling van agreement in Romaans-Germaans tweetalige kindertaalontwikkeling (syntactische en pragmatische aspecten) - Maren Pannemann