B1: "Acquisition of Semantics" (Petra Schulz)

Mon 9.15-10.45, Tue 11.15-12.45, Wed 14.15-15.45, Thu 16.15-17.45

Room: 0.01




In contrast to the acquisition of syntax, which has been investigated in depth for many different languages and across different acquisition types, to date semantics plays a less prominent role in language acquisition research (cf. van Geenhoven 2006). This course will focus on the acquisition of lexical and sentential semantics by looking at typical development and language impairment.


Under the assumption that the human language faculty comprises several, at least partly independent modules, semantics may be a module as well, concerned with linguistic meaning as manifested in the systematic link between linguistic forms and things (Chierchia & McConnell-Ginet 1990). Two questions arise that will be addressed in the lectures.


The first central question concerns the nature of the skills children need to successfully map linguistic expressions to their meaning. Focusing on the sentence level, we will look at the acquisition of telicity (Schulz, Wymann & Penner 2001, van Hout 2007, Wittek 2002), factivity (Schulz 2003, Dudley et al. 2014), exhaustivity in wh-questions (Schulz & Roeper 2011, Schulz 2015a), and relative clause meaning (Schulz 2015b, Trabandt et al. 2016). How do children acquire the meaning of telic and atelic predicates as in (1)? How do they master the difference between factive and non-factive complement clauses as in (2)? How do they acquire the different readings of wh-questions as in (3), and how do children distinguish between the different interpretations of relative clauses as in (4)?


(1)          a. Maria opened the door.        
               b. Maria drew. 


(2)          a. Maria forgot that she bought a present.        
               b. Maria thought that she bought a present.


(3)          a. Q: Who came to the party?                   A: For example John, Mary, and Jane. 
               b. Q: Who is wearing a hat?                     A: John, Mary, and Jane (and nobody else).


(4)          a. Give me the big glass, which (by the way) is empty.                
               b. Give me the big glass that is empty.


A range of acquisition data based on different experimental methods (Truth Value Judgment, Question-with-Picture, Picture Selection) provides evidence that children acquire the meaning of these structures in a systematic, stepwise fashion avoiding irreversible wrong decisions sensu Roeper & de Villiers (1994).


The second central question concerns the nature of language impairment in the domain of semantics. Can semantic impairment be selective, i.e. are there semantic difficulties that are not repercussions of difficulties in the lexical, pragmatic, syntactic, or phonological module? Is the semantic difficulty domain-specific, i.e. restricted to grammar, or domain-general? And finally, is the semantic difficulty caused by a delay or by a deficit? Evidence will be provided from the areas of telicity and exhaustivity in wh-questions suggesting that the semantic module can show selective and domain-specific deficits in children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) (Schulz 2010; cf. also Friedmann & Novogrodsky 2008).


In the final part of the course we will discuss the implications for a modular view of semantics in acquisition and for general accounts of the acquisition of semantics.



  • Chierchia, G. & McConnell-Ginet, S. (2000). Meaning and grammar: An introduction to semantics (Second edition). MIT Press.
  • Dudley, R., Orita, N., Moyer, M., Hacquard, V. & Lidz, J. (2014). Factivity in three-year-olds’ understanding of know and think. In W. Orman and M. J. Valleau (Eds.), Proceedings of the 38th annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 121-141). Cascadilla Press.
  • Friedmann, N. & Novogrodsky, R. (2008). Subtypes of SLI: SySLI, PhoSLI, LeSLI, and PraSLI. In A. Gavarró and M. J. Freitas (Eds.), Language Acquisition and Development (pp. 205-217). Cambridge Scholars Press.
  • Roeper, T. & de Villiers, J. (1994). Lexical links in the wh-chain. In B. Lust, G. Hermon and J. Kornfilt (Eds.), Syntactic theory and first language acquisition: Crosslinguistic perspectives. Vol 2: Binding, dependencies, and learnability (pp. 357-390). Erlbaum.
  • Schulz (2003). Factivity: Its nature and acquisition. Max Niemeyer (Linguistische Arbeiten 480).
  • Schulz, P. (2010). Some notes on semantics and SLI. In A. Castro, J. Costa, M. Lobo and F. Pratas (Eds.), Language Acquisition and Development. Proceedings of GALA 2009 (pp. 391-406). Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press.
  • Schulz, P. (2015a). Exhaustivity. In S. Armon-Lotem, J. de Jong and N. Meir (Eds.), Methods for assessing multilingual children: Disentangling bilingualism from Language Impairment (pp. 76-94). Book Series: Multilingual Matters.
  • Schulz, P. (2015b). Acquisition of the semantics of relative clauses, Talk presented at the Workshop on Complexity and Recursion in Acquisition. University of Toronto, Canada, May.
  • Schulz, P. & Roeper, T. (2011). Acquisition of exhaustivity in wh-questions: A semantic dimension of SLI? Lingua, 121(3), 383-407.
  • Schulz, P., Wymann, K. & Penner, Z. (2001). The early acquisition of verb meaning in German by normally developing and language impaired children. Brain and Language, 77, 407-418.
  • Trabandt, C., Sanfelici, E. & Schulz, P. (2016). What does semantic complexity mean for children? – Insights from the acquisition of relative clauses in German. Talk presented at the 38th annual Conference of the German Society of Linguistics (DGfS), University of Konstanz, February.
  • Van Geenhoven, V. (2006). Acquisition and interpretation. In V. Van Geenhoven (Ed.), Semantics in Acquisition (pp. 1-13). Dordrecht: Springer.
  • van Hout, A. M. H. (2007). Acquiring telicity cross-linguistically: On the acquisition of telicity entailments associated with transitivity. In P. Brown and M. Bowerman (Eds.), Crosslinguistic perspectives on argument structure: Implications for learnability. (pp. 255 - 278). Routledge.
  • Wittek, Angelika (2002). Learning the meaning of change-of-state verbs: A case study of German child language. Mouton de Gruyter (Studies on Language Acquisition 17).


Lecturer: Petra Schulz, Universität Frankfurt