Are Generics Defaults? A Study on the Interpretation of Generics and Universals in 3 Age- Groups of Spanish-Speaking Individuals

Language Learning and Development 10 (2022)
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This paper reports an experiment that investigates interpretive distinctions between two different expressions of generalization in Spanish. In particular, our aim was to find out when the distinction between generic statements (GS) such as Tigers have stripes and universally quantified statements (UQS) such as All tigers have stripes was acquired in Spanish-speaking children of two different age groups (4/5-year-olds and 8/9-year-olds), and then compare these results with those of adults. The starting point of this research was the semantic distinction between GS and UQS in that the former admit exceptions, unlike the latter. On the other hand, several authors have observed a Generic overgeneralization effect (GOG) consisting in allowing for UQS to be felicitous in the face of exceptions, thus proposing that this “error” stems from GS being defaults (simpler, more easily learned and processed). In the current paper we aimed to test the “Generics as Default” (GaD) hypothesis by comparing GS and UQS in three different age ranges. Our data show that, overall, the accuracy of GS is greater than the accuracy of UQS. Moreover, we also confirm a hypothesized interaction between age and NP type (GS vs UQS). Further, we present several data points that are not predicted by the GaD, including an observed decline in the accuracy of GS in the older group of children as well as in adults, and that children fail at rejecting statements that are not considered to be true generalizations.

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