Negative evidence in language acquisition

Gary F. Marcus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Whether children require "negative evidence" (i.e., information about which strings of words are not grammatical sentences) to eliminate their ungrammatical utterances is a central question in language acquisition because, lacking negative evidence, a child would require internal mechanisms to unlearn grammatical errors. Several recent studies argue that parents provide noisy feedback, that is, certain discourse patterns that differ in frequency depending on the grammaticality of children's utterances. However, no one has explicitly discussed how children could use noisy feedback, and I show that noisy feedback is unlikely to be necessary for language learning because (a) if noisy feedback exists it is too weak: a child would have to repeat a given sentence verbatim at least 85 times to decide with reasonable certainty that it is ungrammatical; (b) no kind of noisy feedback is provided to all children at all ages for all types of errors; and (c) noisy feedback may be an artifact of defining parental reply categories relative to the child's utterance. For example, because nearly all parental speech is grammatical, exact repetitions (verbatim repetitions of child utterances) necessarily follow more of children's grammatical utterances than their ungrammatical utterances. There is no evidence that noisy feedback is required for language learning, or even that noisy feedback exists. Thus internal mechanisms are necessary to account for the unlearning of ungrammatical utterances.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)53-85
Number of pages33
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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