"Who breaked the rule?": Rethinking English past tense overregularizations

The Symposium for Research in Child Language Disorders, 2018. You can download the poster  here .

The Symposium for Research in Child Language Disorders, 2018. You can download the poster here.

To learn a language, children must go beyond simply imitating speech and learn the rules of the language from their surrounding linguistic environment. One way to tell that children learn rules is that they apply rules to an overly broad set of words. For example, English-learning children produce forms like "breaked" or "catched" at around 3 years of age. These forms, called past tense overregularizations, show that children have implicitly discovered the past tense formation rule: namely, "add '–ed' to a verb to create the past tense." But does it take children until age 3 to discover such rules? A better understanding of the timeline of rule discovery will help us to develop more realistic milestones to measure children's progress in first language learning.

My dissertation focuses on the perception and production of English past tense overregularizations (e.g. *breaked, *catched). I found that children at 16-months-old understand that verbs, and not nouns, can co-occur with ‘-ed’, attending more to forms like *breaked than *cribbed.  This ability precedes overregularizations in production by months, suggesting that equating overregularization with the unequivocal categorization of the syntactic category of verb grossly underestimates children’s ability.

My work also suggests that the production of past tense overregularizations can be explained by factors other than the discovery of a grammatical rule. There is growing evidence that overregularizations in production reflect children's need to simplify their utterances as they attempt to say more and more complex sentences. Factors that may influence a child's need to simplify utterances are frequency of the lexical item and the child's age.

You can download a copy of my dissertation here

Currently, in the Tweety Language Development Lab, I am taking my work in a new and exciting direction:


In the past, I have pursued another line of research that investigates the Spanish and English abilities of children in a language contact situation in the southwest United States with Dr. M. Adelaida Restrepo as a master’s student and Dr. Leah Fabiano-Smith as a Ph.D. student. Drawing on my previous research experience with Spanish-English bilinguals, as well as my dissertation work, I plan on returning to this group of speakers.

My dissertation research suggests that some forms of English, like the past tense (e.g. walked, caught), are more frequent in written language. For a number of reasons (e.g. institutional racism in the form of redlining, etc.), many Spanish-speaking Latino/a/x children are in under-resourced Title I schools. I seek to investigate the development of language and literacy in these young Spanish-English bilinguals. More specifically, does access to literacy development in the home environment or in the home language account for the distinctive learning pattern of Spanish-English bilingual children. I would like to develop a study that would test this hypothesis.