Simulating the Acquisition of Verb Inflection in Typically Developing Children and Children With Developmental Language Disorder in English and Spanish

Cognitive Science 45 (3):e12945 (2021)
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Children with developmental language disorder (DLD) have significant deficits in language ability that cannot be attributed to neurological damage, hearing impairment, or intellectual disability. The symptoms displayed by children with DLD differ across languages. In English, DLD is often marked by severe difficulties acquiring verb inflection. Such difficulties are less apparent in languages with rich verb morphology like Spanish and Italian. Here we show how these differential profiles can be understood in terms of an interaction between properties of the input language, and the child's ability to learn predictive relations between linguistic elements that are separated within a sentence. We apply a simple associative learning model to sequential English and Spanish stimuli and show how the model's ability to associate cues occurring earlier in time with later outcomes affects the acquisition of verb inflection in English more than in Spanish. We relate this to the high frequency of the English bare form (which acts as a default) and the English process of question formation, which means that (unlike in Spanish) bare forms frequently occur in third‐person singular contexts. Finally, we hypothesize that the pro‐drop nature of Spanish makes it easier to associate person and number cues with the verb inflection than in English. Since the factors that conspire to make English verb inflection particularly challenging for learners with weak sequential learning abilities are much reduced or absent in Spanish, this provides an explanation for why learning Spanish verb inflection is relatively unaffected in children with DLD.



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