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Competition between word order and case-marking in interpreting grammatical relations: a case study in multilingual acquisition*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2010

Department of Linguistics, University of Michigan
Address for correspondence: e-mail:


The study examines strategies multilingual children use to interpret grammatical relations, focusing on their two primary languages, Lajamanu Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri. Both languages use mixed systems for indicating grammatical relations. In both languages ergative–absolutive case-marking indicates core arguments, but to different extents in each language. In Lajamanu Warlpiri, pronominal clitics in a nominative–accusative pattern also indicate core arguments, and in Light Warlpiri word order in a nominative–accusative pattern partially does so. The study asks which sentence interpretation strategies children rely on most, when they learn to rely on them and whether cross-linguistic influences are seen. Children aged 5 ; 0, 7 ; 0 and 9 ; 0 and adults saw paired, animated events simultaneously on video and heard a transitive sentence spoken. The participants pointed to the event depicted by the sentence heard. Adults used a case-marking strategy consistently in both languages. Children initially used both case-marking and word order strategies, but used case-marking more often as age increased.

© Cambridge University Press 2010

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My sincere thanks go to members of Lajamanu Community, especially the participants in the study. I am very grateful to Melissa Bowerman, Penelope Brown, Bhuvana Narasimhan and Jane Simpson for assistance developing the study, to Harald Baayen for the statistical analysis, Jidong Chen for help with stimulus preparation, Seza Doğruoz for the Turkish examples, and to the Journal editors and anonymous reviewers for their comments. The article is an amended version of sections of my PhD thesis ‘Language contact and children's bilingual acquisition: learning a mixed language and Warlpiri in northern Australia.’



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