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Do Adults Show an Effect of Delayed First Language Acquisition When Calculating Scalar Implicatures?


Language acquisition involves learning not only grammatical rules and a lexicon, but also what someone is intending to convey with their utterance: the semantic/pragmatic component of language. In this paper we separate the contributions of linguistic development and cognitive maturity to the acquisition of the semantic/pragmatic component of language by comparing deaf adults who had either early or late first exposure to their first language (ASL). We focus on the particular type of meaning at the semantic/pragmatic interface called scalar implicature, for which preschool-age children typically differ from adults. Children's behavior has been attributed to either their not knowing appropriate linguistic alternatives to consider or to cognitive developmental differences between children and adults. Unlike children, deaf adults with late language exposure are cognitively mature, although they never fully acquire some complex linguistic structures, and thus serve as a test for the role of language in such interpretations. Our results indicate an overall high performance by late learners, especially when implicatures are not based on conventionalized items. However, compared to early language learners, late language learners compute fewer implicatures when conventionalized linguistic alternatives are involved (e.g. ). We conclude that (i) in general, Gricean pragmatic reasoning does not seem to be impacted by delayed first language acquisition and can account for multiple quantity implicatures, but (ii) the creation of a scale based on lexical items can lead to ease in alternative creation that may be advantageously learned early in life, and that this may be one of several factors contributing to differences between adults and children on scalar implicature tasks.

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