Home » Content Tags » Lidz



By Jessica Weiss ’05

Anyone who’s ever tried having a conversation with a 1-year-old knows it can feel like very little is getting through. But according to linguistics Professor Jeffrey Lidz, there’s plenty going on behind the adorable babble and occasional slobbering.

For the past two decades, Lidz has focused on behind-the-scenes action in the youngest human minds, seeking to discern how and when infants begin to understand things like sentence structure or the difference between a noun and a verb.

Lidz co-authored—with Laurel Perkins Ph.D ’19, now an assistant professor at UCLA—a groundbreaking study published last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that syntax, or the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences, actively develops during the second year of life. According to the researchers, 18-month-olds have developed syntax capacities on par with adults.

We recently spoke with Lidz, who is also the director of the University of Maryland Project on Children's Language Learning and one of the founders of the Infant and Child Studies Consortium, about his latest discovery and what it’s like to conduct research into the mysteries of baby talk.

When did you begin researching language in kids?
In the last year of my Ph.D., I took a course on language acquisition, which I thought was really cool. I had some questions about how that research worked, and I managed to get a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania in 1997. So, I started researching syntax and semantics in 3- and 4-year-olds, and the thing I kept finding was that for almost every phenomenon I looked at, children had a really sophisticated knowledge of their language—even though they didn’t speak super fluently. So, the question that was driving me was: How did they get there? Language is a really, really complicated mental construct. It almost seems like an impossible task to figure out how children acquire all that knowledge.

You’ve been at the forefront of making discoveries about syntactic abilities in young children. How does your recent paper fit into the trajectory of your research?
Before the early 2000s, nobody was really studying the syntax of children between 1 and 2 because they thought there wasn’t anything to study because kids that age don’t talk much. But sometimes what kids say is a reflection of what they know, and sometimes what they say is much less than what they know because it’s hard to coordinate a long expression. By 18 months, kids understand that sentences are hierarchically structured, even though you can’t see that in their productions. We found that kids know about grammatical categories like the difference between nouns and verbs, between 16 and 18 months. This most recent paper is about a central feature of language structure, which is the ability to create dependency between words in a sentence that are far away from each other. Discovering that kids can do those computations by the time they’re 18 months is new and exciting.

How do you manage to get babies to cooperate for research studies?
It’s fun—and it’s a challenge. We try and make the lab environment an interesting place to be, and we spend a fair amount of time at the beginning of a study playing with toys, making the children feel comfortable and getting them accustomed to the environment so that when we want to take them into the room to do the study, they’re happy to go with us and interested to see what’s there. We want to make the lab feel like a mix between a dentist’s office and a preschool. In the dentist’s office everything works the way it’s supposed to work and you feel like you’re in the hands of total professionals. But we also want it to be a place that’s fun, where the kid feels happy and so do the parents. If the kids are not feeling comfortable and safe, the experiments are just not gonna work.

Are there things parents can do to help their own kids’ language development?
When my kids were little, we would play with them and figure out ways to probe what they understood. I think playing with your kids linguistically is a fun thing to do, like by seeing how they react when something is ungrammatical. You’ll learn a lot about how sophisticated their knowledge is. But I don’t think parents need to worry, generally, about language development. Children are aggressive learners, and they’re motivated to learn language because they're trying to be understood and they’re trying to understand the world around them.


Photo: Linguistics Professor Jeff Lidz talks about adjectives with an aspiring child scientist at Family Science Days at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in 2016. Lidz is co-author of a groundbreaking new study about how children learn syntax in language.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Language Science Center


Support for research on constraints on movement, and on exceptive constructions.

Congratulations to Adam Liter and to Maria Polinsky, whose work has earned new support from the National Science Foundation. Adam has received a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant for work with his supervisor, Jeff Lidz, on “Subjacency, the Empty Category Principle, and the nature of constraints on phrase movement.” Masha is the recipient of a Collaborative Research Award on “Variation in exceptive structures,” on how languages express thoughts like ‘everybody laughed except you,' a project on which Hisao Kurokami has already begun to work. See the abstracts below.

Adam Liter and Jeffrey Lidz, BCS #2116270, Subjacency, the Empty Category Principle, and the nature of constraints on phrase movement

In general, it is possible to form a question by 'moving' a wh-phrase like "who” or "which boy" out of a seemingly arbitrary number of clauses, as in "Who did Allie say that Amy saw?", "Who did Alicia hear that Allie said that Amy saw?", and so on. In these questions, "who" is the logical object of "saw" yet appears at the beginning of the sentence. However, there are certain syntactic environments, commonly called 'islands,' in which question formation is not possible. A question like "Who did the book by delight everyone?"--whose intended meaning is 'who is the person such that the book by that person delighted everyone'--sounds unnatural to speakers of English, suggesting that it is not a possible question despite having a reasonable meaning. Some linguists have claimed that these constraints disappear when the offending structure is elided, such as in a sentence like "Amy said that the book by someone delighted everyone, but I don't remember who". Such sentences sound a bit more natural to speakers of English, but their status isn't entirely clear. This dissertation project will advance linguistic theory by using recent experimental techniques to ascertain whether such sentences are grammatical. In advancing the field, this project will also support education and diversity by training an undergraduate research assistant in these experimental techniques, scientific thinking, and statistical analysis.

Using behavioral methods, this doctoral dissertation project probes the link between speakers' reported judgments and their sensitivity to structure in questions with and without ellipsis. The goal is to determine whether the same principles apply to dependencies involving ellipsis as those that do not, with the longer term goal of identifying the computational principles governing syntactic locality. More generally, the project addresses the consequences of mismatches between reported acceptability and subliminal sensitivity to structure in acceptability judgments.

Maria Polinsky, BCS #2116344, Variation in exceptive structures

All languages are able to express universal statements, even though we realize that they are seldom literally true. Consequently, languages also have means of expressing exceptions to such generalizations, via exceptive constructions. English examples include "Everybody but Sandy laughed" and "Everybody laughed except Sandy". Linguistic means of expressing exclusion have received modest attention from philosophers of language and semanticists, whose focus has been primarily on English. Beyond that small body of work, little is known about exceptive constructions across the world's languages: how they are built, what their distribution is within individual languages and across languages, and how they compare to other constructions expressing comparison or contrast. This research project fills this gap as the first cross-linguistic investigation of lexical, morphological, and syntactic properties of the construction. Understanding exceptive constructions allows linguists to create better theories of language structure and to predict the range of variation in natural languages; it helps computer scientists build better parsing models; it gives language educators new dimensions that should be emphasized in language teaching, and it provides cultural anthropologists with additional tools to study societal (dis)similarities in the concept of exclusion. 

This research project employs methodologies from linguistic typology, theoretical syntax, and formal semantics to carry out in-depth investigations of exceptive constructions in a wide range of the world's languages. The project aims for maximum linguistic coverage by using sampling techniques of modern linguistic typology. Theoretically, the project addresses a range of questions that arise from the empirical findings. In particular, it analyzes the contrast between free and connected exceptives, phrasal and clausal exceptives, and coordinated and subordinated exceptives. The project develops diagnostics that reliably identify the different types of exceptives and identifies independent linguistic properties that correlate with these different types of exceptives in a language. Therefore, it allows researchers to predict the type of exceptive constructions in an individual language. Beyond developing a picture of exceptive structure cross-linguistically, the project has notable implications for current theories of ellipsis. The project provides data on low-resource and endangered languages and highlights the importance of linguistic diversity for a complete understanding of the human language system.


Subscribe to RSS - Lidz