We study the learnability problem concerning the dative alternations in English (Baker, 1979; Pinker, 1989). We consider how first language learners productively apply the double-object and to-dative constructions (give the book to library/give the library the book), while excluding negative exceptions (donate the book to the library/*donate the library the book). Our solution for first language acquisition is based on The Tolerance Principle, a formal model that detects productivity from the distributional properties of the input data (Yang, 2005, 2016). This principle predicts an acquisition stage where the constructions are productive, followed by a stage where learners retreat from overgeneralization and form more finely grained rules. This work calls for a formally rigorous model of acquisition, which can incorporate input effects and retain the benefits of an abstract generative grammar without resorting to piecemeal learning. We provide an analysis of child-directed speech in the CHILDES database to support the learning proposal for first language acquisition, while considering its potential applicability to second language (L2) acquisition and first language (L1) attrition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)119-144
Number of pages26
JournalSecond Language Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017


  • English
  • L1 attrition
  • L2 acquisition
  • dative alternation
  • exceptions L1 acquisition
  • productivity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


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