FoTeRo: Focus and thematic role assignment: A comparison of Hungarian and German in Child Language Comprehension

Principal investigators:
Prof. Dr. Pia Knoeferle
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Prof. Dr. Stavros Skopeteas
Universität Bielefeld

Project description:
The aim of this project is to investigate pragmatic inferences from information structure to thematic role assignment in Hungarian and in German. The fact that information structure contributes to role disambiguation, in addition to syntactic and morphological cues (such as word order and case) is established in psycholinguistic and typological research. However, we know very little about listeners’ principles in mapping information structural categories, such as topic and focus, to particular arguments and to thematic roles in languages that differ in this mapping. We know even less about how this mapping changes across language development. This project will collect empirical data with the goal of developing a precise pragmatic account of this process during language comprehension. Two theoretical positions will be compared: (a) Hearers use information structural preferences (e.g., topics are subjects and foci are objects) as defaults for thematic role assignment; (b) alternatively, information structural cues motivate pragmatic inferences about why the speaker uses canonical or non-canonical word orders. In order to examine the predictions of these hypotheses, we will conduct experimental studies (visual word paradigm) in two languages that crucially differ with respect to how focus is typically interpreted (as an object in German, and as a subject in Hungarian). We examine how (differences in) the syntax and prosody of these languages implicate inferential processes that lead to different thematic role assignments. By examining data from several stages of language development (in both languages), the project will gain insights into (a) the developmental stages in the recognition of particular cues (e.g., prosody and case), (b) the contribution of these cues to the pragmatics of role assignment; and (c) children’s emerging pragmatic competence in this process. The results of this project will be integrated into a psycholinguistic model of situated language processing (Coordinated Interplay Account).