Subject interpretation of object questions by Dutch 5-year-olds
The role of number agreement in comprehension
We investigated the interpretation of Dutch wie ‘who’- and welke ‘which’-questions in Dutch 5-year-olds. In contrast to wh-questions in many languages, Dutch wh-questions are structurally ambiguous between a subject and an object reading. We used test items in which the ambiguity was resolved by number agreement. The participants (N = 20) heard a wh-question and had to choose the corresponding picture out of a set of four; this method revealed their interpretation as either subject or object question. The results show that 5-year-olds interpret all question types as subject questions, independent of the agreement cues. Thus, they effectively do not attend to the agreement mismatch that this interpretation causes for the object questions. These errors suggest an overly strong subject-first bias in 5-year-olds. We argue that number agreement is too weak a cue for children to overcome this tendency.
Keywords: object questions, subject questions, wh-questions, first language acquisition, subject verb agreement, Dutch, subject-first bias, agreement mismatch
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