This study investigates the acquisition of voice alternations in bilingual Greek-German and Greek-English 4 to 8 year-old children. Specifically, it explores how bilingual children, who are exposed to languages that have different morphosyntactic ways of expressing Voice alternations, acquire these Voice systems.
It has long been observed that the comprehension of passives is delayed (Maratsos et al. 1985; Bever 1970). Borer & Wexler (1987) posit that children understand verbal passives early if they treat them as adjectival passives because they do not involve A-chain formation. By contrast, reflexives have been found to be acquired early cross-linguistically (Varlokosta 2000, 2002; McKee 1992).
Turning to the languages examined here, Greek is underspecified for passive and reflexive constructions (Tsimpli 1989, 2006; Embick 2004). German and English lack such an underspecification: in German, reflexives are formed using the reflexive pronoun sich and passives periphrastically using werden + past participle. Likewise, in English, reflexives are formed using the pronoun myself and passives are formed using the verb to be + past participle.
Looking at how both German-Greek and English-Greek bilingual children acquire Voice alternations and when exactly they become sensitive to them, even if they do not produce them, can help us decipher whether there is an interaction between the two different Voice systems being acquired by each group of bilinguals respectively, and/or whether these two systems develop separately.
The working hypothesis is that bilingual children will be sensitive to passives at a younger age than their monolingual peers due to the unique structure of German and English passives (Alexiadou et al. 2015) which may provide bilinguals with additional cues that aid the disambiguation of the two structures in Greek. To investigate this, 40 Greek-German and 40 Greek-English bilingual children as well as 40 Greek children will be tested in bilingual nurseries and schools in Berlin, in Cambridge/London, and Thessaloniki using a truth-value judgement task and an act-out task.
Some of my main research questions with regard to the development of monolingual as opposed to bilingual acquisition are:
a) Do bilingual children acquire the Voice structures in question similarly to their monolingual counterparts?
b) If monolingual acquisition develops differently from bilingual acquisition, how do bilinguals deal with the differences of their two (competing?) linguistic systems?
c) What patterns of language interference can be found, if any? Does one pair of bilinguals have an ‘advantage’ in processing Voice alternations in comparison to the other bilinguals?
Two outcomes seem possible: i) Bilinguals can decode the Greek syncretism based on their experience with German and English passives and reflexives. If this is the case, it would support theories claiming that bilinguals are faster in acquiring linguistic structures in one language, when these are supported by their other language. ii) Bilinguals exhibit no advantage. If this is the case, it would support theories that foreground the role of input frequency and the nature of the structure.