The language acquisition group @ CASTL: The VAMOS Project

The VAMOS project (Variation in Acquisition: Multiple Object and Subject positions) investigates children’s acquisition of subject and object placement in several grammatical constructions in which two different positions are permitted for these elements. VAMOS is a CASTL-affiliated project, by the Tromsø Research Foundation for a period November 2008-March 2012. The project leader is Professor Paula Fikkert, with Merete Anderssen and Yulia Rodina as post-doctoral fellows.


In 2009/2010 in collaboration with Kristine Bentzen we conducted an elicited production study of subject and object shift constructions in Norwegian child language. Examples of the variable position of subjects and objects in these structures are provided in (1)-(4), respectively.

  1. Den boka har ikke John/*han lest / Den boka har John/han ikke lest 
    that book has not John/he read / that book has John/he not read
  2. John leste ikke den boka/*den / John leste *den boka/den ikke 
    John read not that book/it / John read that book/it not

The major focus of the investigation is on how children acquire such structures and how they deal with the optionality displayed in the input. However, in order to study how these constructions are acquired, it is also necessary to consider how they function in the adult language. In the examples above, the word order in the target language is determined by various characteristics of the arguments, but not always the same ones. For example, one determining factor is information structure and whether the subject/object represents given or new information. Other aspects that affect the argument placement in these structures is their nominal type (pronoun versus DP), definiteness, specificity and prosody. We wish to investigate what these factors are in the different constructions in the adult language and to what extent children are sensitive to them. In those cases when they are not, it is necessary to determine when they become sensitive to them.

The primary focus of our investigation is Norwegian. However, the investigation will also include a comparative component, as we intend to study the acquisition of some of these constructions in Dutch, English and Russian. The research is carried out experimentally in the recently established Tromsø Language acquisition Lab (TROLL) by conducting elicited production experiments.

In 2011 the VAMOS project focused on studying the Dative Alternation in children acquiring Norwegian, Russian, and Ukrainian:

(i)   Peter ga  Maria en bok (DOD)         /  Peter ga en bok til Maria (PD)

(ii)  Petja dal Marii knigu (DAT>ACC)     / Petja dal knigu Marii (ACC>DAT)

(iii) Petryk dav Mariji knyhu (DAT>ACC) / Petryk dav knyhu Mariji (ACC>DAT)

Peter gave Mary a book. / Peter gave a book to Mary.

Our goal has been to investigate children’s sensitivity to the Given-before-New principle, i.e. whether 4-to-6-year-old children use this pragmatic principle and place given objects before new ones similarly to adults. The Norwegian child data reveal that givenness has a major impact on the children’s word order choice. Yet, unlike adults, the children show preference for the basic prepositional dative (PD) structure and also frequently omit the given arguments. We have thus argued for the following interaction between syntax and pragmatics: syntax provides the possible syntactic variants, while pragmatics determines the choice of word order or the pattern of argument omission. The results of this study have been presented at two of the most important acquisition conferences: Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition (GALA), in September 6-8, Thessaloniki, and Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD), in November 4-6, Boston, as well as at the VAMOS WORKSHOP in April 4-5, Tromsø.

In 2011 post doctoral research fellow Roksolana Mykhaylyk joined the VAMOS project. Together we carried out a cross-linguistic study of the Dative Alternation in typologically different languages: Norwegian which distinguishes DOD and PD vs. Russian and Ukrainian where the postverbal argument positions are case marked. Our preliminary results suggest that the children acquiring these languages behave similarly: like adults they place given arguments before new, but the children show a preference for the basic structure and omit arguments in pragmatically felicitous contexts.