Quantifier spreading: children misled by ostensive cues


This paper calls attention to a methodological problem of acquisition experiments. It shows that the economy of the stimulus employed in child language experiments may lend an increased ostensive effect to the message communicated to the child. Thus, when the visual stimulus in a sentence-picture matching task is a minimal model abstracting away from the details of the situation, children often regard all the elements of the stimulus as ostensive clues to be represented in the corresponding sentence. The use of such minimal stimuli is mistaken when the experiment aims to test whether or not a certain element of the stimulus is relevant for the linguistic representation or interpretation. The paper illustrates this point by an experiment involving quantifier spreading. It is claimed that children find a universally quantified sentence like Every girl is riding a bicycle to be a false description of a picture showing three girls riding bicycles and a solo bicycle because they are misled to believe that all the elements in the visual stimulus are relevant, hence all of them are to be represented by the corresponding linguistic description. When the iconic drawings were replaced by photos taken in a natural environment rich in accidental details, the occurrence of quantifier spreading was radically reduced. It is shown that an extra object in the visual stimulus can lead to the rejection of the sentence also in the case of sentences involving no quantification, which gives further support to the claim that the source of the problem is not (or not only) the grammatical or cognitive difficulty of quantification but the unintended ostensive effect of the extra object. 


This article is part of the special collection: Acquisition of Quantification


A correction article related to this research can be found here: http://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.902


quantifier spreading, universal quantifier, exhaustivity, ostension, acquisition

How to Cite

É. Kiss, K. & Zétényi, T., (2017) “Quantifier spreading: children misled by ostensive cues”, Glossa: a journal of general linguistics 2(1): 38. doi: https://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.147


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Katalin É. Kiss (Research Institute for Linguistics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 1068 Budapest, Benczúr utca 33)
Tamás Zétényi (Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Department of Ergonomics and Psychology, 1117 Budapest, Magyar Tudósok körútja 2)



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