Passives

Despite the rarity of the passive construction in everyday conversations in English, a good deal of attention has been paid to how children use and understand passive sentences. Because the order of the agent and patient is reversed, this particular construction can reveal a great deal about how children acquire word order rules that play a major role in English syntax.

Elicited production tasks have been used to study how children construct passive sentences, typically using sets of pictures that shift the focus to the patient. Younger children tend to produce primarily truncated passives (e.g., ''the window was broken") in which no agent is specified. These truncated passives generally have inanimate subjects, whereas full passives are produced by children when animate subjects are involved, suggesting that full and truncated passives may develop separately and be unrelated for the younger child. It has been suggested that truncated passives are really adjectival, whereas the later appearing full forms are complete verbal passives.

Numerous studies have used an act-out procedure to investigate children's comprehension of passive voice sentences. Typically, these studies compare children's comprehension of passive sentences to active sentences that are either reversible, in which either noun could plausibly be the agent (e.g., ''the boy kisses the girl'' or ''the boy is kissed by the girl''), or semantically biased, in which one noun is more plausibly the agent than the other (e.g., ''the girlfeeds the baby" or ''the girl is fed by the baby"). Studies find that children correctly interpret the plausible passive sentences before they do the reversible sentences. Preschoolers acquiring English tend to make errors systematically on the reversible passive sentences, suggesting the use of a processing strategy, called the word-order strategy whereby noun-verb-noun sequences are interpreted as agent-action-object. Children learning languages other than English may develop different processing strategies that closely reflect the canonical ways of organizing the basic relations in a sentence in their native language. For example, Japanese is a verb-final language that marks the agent with a suffix -ga rather than with a fixed word order, although there is a preference for an agent-object-verb order. Preschool-aged Japanese children tend to use a strategy that takes the first noun marked with -ga as the agent of the sentence. Thus, children's processing strategies are tailored to the kind of language they are acquiring and show that preschoolers have already worked out the primary ways that their language marks the basic grammatical relations.

Studies of the acquisition of other languages such as Sesotho, in which the passive construction is very frequent because subjects always mark sentence topic, have found that children acquire the passive much earlier and use it much more productively than do English-speaking children. Again, this suggests that children are sensitive to the typology of their language and that these factors influence the timing of development for the passive.

The semantic characteristics of the verb also influence the child's comprehension of passive sentences. Although 5-year-olds do correctly understand passive sentences that have action verbs, they find it more difficult to interpret passive sentences with nonaction verbs (e.g., ''Donald was liked by Goofy"). Thus, the acquisition of passive voice continues into the school years as the child's knowledge becomes less constrained by semantic aspects of the verb.

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