Matches and mismatches in nominal morphology and agreement: Learning from the acquisition of Eegimaa

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Language and Linguistic Science


Theoretical accounts of the strategies used by children to learn the structures of words and grammatical features of languages differ considerably, but our knowledge of what is possible is limited by the existing focus on a relatively small number of languages associated with industrialized nations. Here, we will investigate grammatical features and structures that may be expressed in a variety of different ways. Examples of grammatical features include number, e.g. the distinction between singular and plural, or gender, e.g. distinguishing masculine and feminine in languages like French, features expressed within the shape of the word and associated items. Grammatical structure may be manifested in agreement across the separate words of a noun phrase (e.g. The cat purrs, where the -s on 'purrs' shows agreement with cat, indicating that there is only one cat.) This project investigates the acquisition of inflectional morphology, i.e., grammatical features and structures as reflected in the word forms and associated agreement, in Gújjolaay Eegimaa, a language of the Atlantic family of the Niger Congo phylum spoken in Southern Senegal. This language has a gender system of the type traditionally known as a noun class system. Noun class systems with complex gender agreement are characteristic of the Niger-Congo languages.

In Eegimaa nouns use prefixes to form singular and plural. For example ba- is the singular marker for ba-ginh 'chest', but its plural marker is u- as in u-ginh 'chests'. Nouns which have the same singular prefix, e.g. ba-, can form their plural with a different marker (e.g., bá-jur 'young woman', plural sú-jur 'young women'). Eegimaa has a complex morphological system of gender and number marking which is also reflected in its agreement system. Current knowledge as to how children acquire gender/noun class marking and agreement is based entirely on the Bantu languages of the Niger Congo family. There are no studies available of Atlantic languageshich, though similar to Bantu in some ways, also have important differences.
Here we will investigate the influence of the three factors found to affect children's acquisition of noun class morphology and agreement, namely:

i) Input frequency, according to which the forms that children hear the most will tend to be acquired first
ii) Perceptual salience, according to which more salient forms such as stressed syllables will tend to be acquired first, and
iii) Morphological transparency, according to which forms whose meanings are easily determined will tend to be acquired more easily than those whose meanings are more obscure.

Our study will build on findings on the acquisition of Bantu noun class systems, and will aim to answer questions such as the following. What strategies do children rely on to learn complex language structure? What is the role of adult input language in the acquisition of morphology and agreement in Eegimaa? How do children cope with variation in language input from their caregivers? In what order do they learn the different noun class markers?

We will carry out a longitudinal study in which we will observe over three years the interactions of five children aged from about 2 to 4 years with their caregivers. Among Eegimaa speakers, caregivers include children's parents, older siblings and other members of the community. Children's daytime activities mostly take place outside their homes. We will record children's output speech on audio and video and compare the data with child-directed speech from adults and with adult-directed speech (interactions between adults), collected as part of a previous project. We will also carry out a cross-sectional study by twice observing the speech of ten additional children at two points, at ages 3 and 4 years. These studies together will provide both an in-depth look and a broader overview of the acquisition process in this under-investigated area.

Planned Impact

In recent years fieldworkers, especially those working on endangered languages, have raised concern that very little is done by academic linguists to contribute to language development in the communities where their research takes place (Dobrin & Good, 2009), and that the collaboration between linguists and the communities tends to benefit the academic community only.

This research aims at contributing to linguistic science by investigating the acquisition of morphology and agreement in Eegimaa. At the same time, it will also contribute to literacy development in the Eegimaa community by producing reading material informed by the project findings and data collection. This will be useful to different categories of beneficiaries including children. As detailed in 'Pathways to Impact' we will share our findings with Mr Seydou Sané, the regional chief inspector for education and teacher training, in order to help shape policy by providing an example of how local languages can be integrated into formal literacy teaching.

School material for children:
French is currently the only medium of instruction in schools in Senegal. Only children who are in their first two years of primary school are allowed to use Eegimaa in schoolyards. Children therefore face a double challenge, the acquisition of a new language and the development of literacy skills. This contributes to the high rate of failure and drop out in schools. This project will provide data on children's language development prior to school and inform the calibration and testing of carefully produced reading material that builds on this prior knowledge, making use of new data on caregiver speech and children's own speech production. Drawing on this information, we will produce reading material in the form of two booklets which will be distributed in the schools free of charge. One of these books will be inspired from a traditional folktale, tailored to accord with both caregivers' and children's speech. It will taret children aged 3 to 5 who attend Kindergarten in Eegimaa villages. The aim is to develop reading and writing skills which will help the children to gain the most from the formal education system which they join at age six or seven.

The data on children's speech production will also inform the production of a dictionary with pictures gathered from the fieldwork. Not only will this raise the status of the language in the eyes of its younger speaker, it will also be useful to participants in our project when they begin to attend primary school. The dictionary will also be a useful tool for developing literacy among adults.

Materials of this kind are innovative; the overarching idea is to create a positive attitude toward reading from an early age, using the first language of the pupils, based on stories from their own social world. The reading material will also be useful for educational authorities and NGOs that are working in the ongoing literacy programme sponsored by the Senegalese government.

Radio programme:
For the larger community of speakers Serge Sagna will organise and host a radio programme in Eegimaa focused on the topic of helping children to read. This new programme will build on previous ones organised in 2015 as part of his ESRC Future Research Leaders fellowship, responding to the currently strong demand in the community (
The new radio programme will also be beneficial to local government bodies like the mayor of the Eegimaa-speaking area and his team, who were invited to explain new policies in one of the 2015 radio shows.


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