Finding the force: How children discern possibility and necessity modals

TitleFinding the force: How children discern possibility and necessity modals
Publication TypeArticle de revue
Année de publication2022
AuthorsDieuleveut, Anouk, Annemarie van Dooren, Ailis Cournane, and Valentine Hacquard
Keywordscorpus study, Human Simulation Paradigm experiment, Language Acquisition, Modals, negation

This paper investigates when and how children figure out the force of modals: that possibility modals (e.g. can/might) express possibility, and necessity modals (e.g. must/have to), necessity. Modals raise a classic subset problem: given that necessity entails possibility, what prevents learners from hypothesizing possibility meanings for necessity modals? Three solutions to such subset problems can be found in the literature: the first is for learners to rely on downward-entailing environments (Gualmini and Schwarz 2009); the second is a bias for strong (here, necessity) meanings; the third is for learners to rely on pragmatic cues, stemming from the conversational context (Dieuleveut et al. 2019, Rasin and Aravind 2020).  This paper assesses the viability of each of these solutions, by examining the modals used in speech to and by 2-year-old children, through a combination of corpus studies and experiments testing the guessability of modal force based on their context of use. Our results suggest that given the way modals are used in speech to children, the first solution is not viable, and the second unnecessary. Instead, we argue that the conversational context in which modals occur is highly informative as to their force, and sufficient, in principle, to sidestep the subset problem. Our child results further suggest an early mastery of possibility, but not necessity modals, and show no evidence for a necessity bias.